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Archive for January, 2010


Hunger is a primal force, and if left unattended, can create an unhealthy array of habits and eating patterns that can contribute to obesity.   We are born with a natural sense of hunger, an ability to recognize it, and a desire to quench it pretty effectively.  Babies expressly tell us when they need to eat—they cry.  Toddlers tell us by whining, or “melting down”.  Children coming home from school may tear into the refrigerator or pantry, “starving” and desperate to eat.

By adulthood, folks generally have figured out how to manage their hunger–some respectfully honoring their body’s signals and feeding it when the telltale signs emerge.  Others have strategies that help them manage their hunger and ultimately their weight–healthy techniques and not-so-healthy ones.  In my observations, children are not inclined to use the delay tactics and strategic distractions common to adulthood management of hunger.  Hunger, for many children, is POWERFUL.  Naturally, children feel hunger and they seek food. 

Also, children are in the dynamic process of growing and hunger prompts them to eat.  Ever hear of the teenager that won’t stop eating?  How about your friend, the mother of that teen, who is off to the grocery store every two days, just to keep the kitchen stocked?  Children are able to satisfy their hunger, and become self-sufficient at making choices for themselves.  Often, we adults fail to appreciate the power and influence of  hunger in a child. 

What does hunger have to do with childhood overweight or obesity? 

The degree of hunger and the responsiveness to hunger plays an important role in childhood overweight.   Intense hunger, or over-hunger, can occur as a result of long stretches without food, meals that don’t provide enough energy, or an improper balance of nutrients.  Just as a car without gas sputters down the road until it eventually stalls, likewise our bodies drag along, tired and unfocused when nutrition is at bay.  If hunger is ignored or put off, it can cause havoc in a child’s ability to regulate their eating patterns.  Unsatisfied hunger can build, causing overeating and inappropriate food choices. 

For the child who struggles with their weight, overzealous techniques to reduce weight, such as restricting foods and portions, dieting, skipping meals or snacks, or beginning a vigorous exercise plan can backfire, leaving a child hungry and unsatisfied and eventually causing them to overeat.  In the process of weight management, there is a delicate balancing act:  quenching hunger with filling, nutritious foods.  Here are some things to keep in mind:

Respect the role of hunger in the growing child.  Growing children are hungry– eating is variable to accomodate the energy needs associated with growth and development.  Restricting or controlling your child’s food intake may actually cause them to become over-hungry and overeat at other times.

Stay ahead of hunger. Strategically plan meals and snacks to occur every 3-4 hours.  Skipping meals or snacks can be a trap for overeating later on.

Use filling, nutritious foods.  100% whole grains, fruits, and vegetables provide fiber–a component of food that keeps you full longer;  sensible amounts of low fat dairy products and lean meats, eggs, nuts, and beans pump up the protein and also give you a sense of fullness.

Load up early.  A nutritious breakfast starts the body’s “engine” and sets the pattern for eating at regular intervals.  Kids who skip breakfast may find themselves hungrier after school and at dinner time.

Power up the protein & fiber in meals and snacks.  Include a variety of foods from at least 3-4 of the MyPyramid food groups at mealtime.  Offer “power snacks” at snack time and include a source of protein and whole grains for a satisfying, “stick to your ribs”,  hunger-defying snack.

A “starving” child WILL eat…it’s up to you to have a strategic, healthy plan in place.  Respect the power of hunger in your child.  Anticipate it.  React when it occurs with healthy, nourishing, satisfying food options that your child can enjoy…WHY WEIGHT?

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Sugar baby.  Honey child.  Are these sweet-nothings turning into a bitter reality for your child? 

No doubt the presence and regularity of sugar in a child’s diet has an influence on their health and weight.  For Part 3 of the Why Weight? series, we take a closer look at total sugar, it’s impact on diet, and leave you with some tips to manage your sweet child.

“Added sugars” are sugars added to foods during food preparation (think baking cookies) or during food processing.  In contrast, natural sugars are inherent to a food,  such as in the case of milk, fruit, and vegetables.  The crux of the issue for children is this:  How often do foods with “added sugars” appear in a child’s diet and, do these foods crowd out more nutritious foods? 

We know that drinking soda can have a significant impact on a child’s weight, due to the amount of added sugar.  While soda may contribute up to 30% of total added sugar intake in a child’s diet, other sources of sugar are lurking in the grocery aisles.  Where are they?  It appears that the rest of the sugar in children’s diets are coming from obvious and hidden sources.  Obvious sources such as cookies, candy, soda, cakes, pies, and ice cream, otherwise known as confectionary sources, are considered high sugar products and contribute a significant amount of sugar to a child’s diet, and few nutrients.  These sweets are obvious, and most people recognize them as sugar-laden.  In addition to the sugar content, these foods can also be rich in fat and contribute to excess weight gain.

Hidden sugar sources, often advertised and appearing to be healthy, represent the remainder of  the sweets in a child’s diet.  These are sources of sugar that can be sneaky, and can leave parents unaware of their impact on total sugar and calorie intake.  Sugary cereals, yogurts, granola bars, energy bars, sports drinks, trail mixes, and fancy coffee drinks, are some items to be wary of, to name a few. 

In a recent study, researchers looked at total sugar intake in preschoolers.  On average, added sugar intake was 14 teaspoons per day for kids aged 2-3 and about 17 teaspoons per day for those aged 4-5. That’s a hefty punch for young ones, especially considering the World Health Organization’s recommendations of <10% calories from added sugar per day.  The main culprits?  High fat desserts, regular soda, and10% fruit juices accounted for half of “added sugar” sources.  Apparently, our young ones are getting off on the wrong tooth…the sweet one.  Equally concerning, this study also concluded that healthier foods such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, and grains may be missing or lacking in diets that are rich in added sugar.

Not only should we be concerned with the overall sources of sugar in a child’s diet, we need to be aware of marketing.  In other words, advertisers aim to influence our chidlren with ads that promote sweeter foods.  Sugary foods that are most commonly advertised to children?  Sugar-enhanced and -coated cereals, sweetened dairy products, and the obvious sweets.

Guidelines for  getting a grip on the sweets in your child’s diet:

Sweets are a treat!  Reserve obvious sugary foods like cakes, cookies, ice cream, soda, and candy for special occasions.

Focus on natural sugars.  These nature-made sugars are readily available in the form of fruit, vegetables, milk and milk products–and the best part, natural sugars go hand-in-hand with other nutrients that benefit your child’s health, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Strike the balance.  If your child won’t eat yogurt unless it is sweetened, or drink milk unless it is chocolate, relax.  In these foods,  added sugars keep company with other beneficial nutrients such as calcium, Vitamin D, and protein, which are an important part of a healthy diet and for a child’s growth.  Focus your efforts on making sure your child gets a healthy dose of  natural sweets.

Be a “sugar-sleuth”.  Don’t let the “healthy” foods trick you–be a savvy consumer and seek out hidden sources of sugars — look on the ingredient list of food products for words like table sugar, fruit juice concentrate, cane sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and honey–these should send off a caution light in your head.  Other, more subtle, tricky words, such as dextrose, sucrose, maltose, and other words ending in “-ose” are red flags for the presence of sugar.  Compare products to find the lower sugar content, which can be determined by looking at the nutrient label for grams of sugar per serving, and by looking at the ingredient list for the type of sugar.  Pay attention to the order of the ingredients:  if the sugar source is near the top of the list, then it delivers a hefty dose of added sugar. 

Why Weight? to get a handle on the sugar in your child’s life?  YOU are the shopper–look for and recognize hidden sources of sugar in your usual purchases, pick up more foods that contain natural sugars, and limit sweet treats to special occasions.  Why Weight?

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Why Weight? to think about the impact of convenience foods on your child’s health? 

Convenience foods have been around since WWII, when foods were prepared for soldiers at war, to be easily consumed with minimal preparation on the battlefield–simply heat and eat, or just eat directly from the container.  Since that time, the presence of convenience food in our culture has grown from canned fruit and frozen fish sticks to individually packaged snacks and candies, complete meals in a bag or box (just add meat), the everywhere fast food joint, and the school lunch menu.  Need a pizza?  Just pull it out of the freezer.  In between soccer games?  Pull into the local fast food restaurant and order your meal to go.  No time to make your child’s lunch?  You can even purchase a mini lunch for kids in the grocery store.  Better yet, you can even find stores stocked with these items– convenience stores! 

Can you really afford to feed your children a diet laden with convenience foods? Foods which conveniently make the most of your time, but may be inconveniently undermining your child’s health. 

On the landscape of childhood obesity, convenience foods such as packaged foods , frozen foods, and fast food rise as mountainous obstacles to overcome along the path to healthy eating. Use of convenience foods have been associated with weight gain and less healthy eating habits in children. We see this particularly in children who are raised in “food deserts”, areas in which there is limited access to grocery stores and in which convenience stores are plenty. However, children who have ready access to grocery stores and healthy foods are also guilty of overconsuming convenience foods.

Are all convenience foods bad?  No.  Is eating something out of a frozen box for breakfast, a prepared mini-lunch at noon, and a swing through the drive-through on the way home from work good for you?  Probably not. 

To children, convenience foods TASTE GOOD (heck, they taste good to adults too!).  Why do they taste so good?  Convenience foods tend to contain significant amounts of “flavor kicks”:  salt, fat, and sugar.  Fat and sugar = calories.  Salt = savory, lip-smacking tastiness.  And although there has been a recent effort by manufacturers to reduce the amount of salt added to convenience foods– these efforts are quiet and too new to tell if they will have a positive impact on health. 

To limit the impact of convenience foods on your child’s weight and eating habits, try these strategies:

Just say no.  Limit fast food excursions to 1-2 times/week or less. 

Plan ahead for meals at home.  Eating at home tends to be healthier, plus there are numerous benefits to eating together as a family, such as better academic scores,  improved social adjustment, and less risk-taking behaviors.  If you must visit the drive through, choose healthier options such as milk, fruit cups/bags, yogurt parfaits, salads, and grilled meats, for example.

If convenience items appear in your shopping cart each week, when shopping, compare the nutrient labels for similar items of different brands, and choose the item with less salt, fat, and calories per serving.

Add color to convenience! Fruit and veggies added to frozen meals and fast food options can increase the nutrition quality of your child’s meal.

For snacks, use the original convenience food:  fruit

Use the ultimate convenient cooking gadget:  the crockpot.  There are many cookbooks devoted to crockpot recipes, which are tasty and healthy.

Cook ahead and freeze:  Pancakes, waffles, casseroles, mashed potatoes, spaghetti sauce, meatballs, and more.  Make more than you need and freeze the leftovers for another meal.

Why weight? to cut back on convenience foods?  Why weight? to lessen the impact of convenience foods on your child’s health and weight?  Don’t let convenience foods inconvenience your child’s health!

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When I was younger, drinking soda was a treat.  Only allowed when at parties or when out for dinner…and no refills.  And the standard soda was a 12 ounce can, or a 10 ounce paper cup from the fast food joint.  Diet sodas were not even an option until I was 18 years old!  Well, that was over 25 years ago…

While we are no longer in the “olden days’, there is some virtue and value to the limits around soda that were commonplace to the everyday diet so many years ago.  Flash forward to the new millenium and look at how soda is accepted as a primary drink for children.  You can find soda in baby bottles, sippy cups, lunch boxes, school vending machines, and stocked in many home refrigerators.  And while soda marketers try even harder to maintain sodas in schools, enlarge the portion sizes, and tempt consumption with child-targeted advertising campaigns, the anti-obesity movement scorns soda and its effects on the weight and health of children.

The research tells us that there is a link between drinking sweetened beverages (ie, soda) and adiposity (body fat) in children.  In other words, drinking soda can increase the likelihood of weight gain. 

Soda is a source of sugar–and sugar is a source of calories.  Each 12 ounce can of regular soda packs ~150 calories aand 9 tsp. of sugar.  That’s 150 calories of sugary sweetness–not nutrients like protein, vitamins, or minerals–just calories.   Over time, drinking a can of regular soda each day can be a significant source of extra calories and a major contributor to excess weight gain and childhood obesity.

Commonly available soda sizes that pack a wallop of extra calories:

20 oz soda:  250 calories:  17 tsp. sugar (yup, that’s a 1/3 cup of sugar!)

24 oz. soda:  300 calories:  20 tsp. sugar (1/3 c. sugar)

Big Gulp (40 ounce):  ~500 calories:  34 tsp. sugar (yes, Gulp!, that’s about 3/4 cup sugar)

Imagine taking your sugar bowl out of the cabinet and swallowing a cup of sugar!  Would you let your child do that?!  No, most parents would grab the sugar bowl, put it away,  and scold their child for doing something so ludicrous.  Yet, allowing children to consume regular soda, without limits, is not dissimilar. 

What about diet sodas?  Diet sodas use artificial sweeteners to mimic the taste of the regular soda product, without the calories.  While use of diet soda can be helpful in the process of eliminating regular soda and reducing calorie intake, regular use of diet soda is not advised for children.  

How much is too much?  If your child is drinking more than 3-4 cans of soda/week, it is time to re-evaluate your drinks.   Alter your approach:

  • Change your perspective:  Sodas are a treat!
  • Don’t purchase sodas and bring them into your home (remember, YOU are the gatekeeper who makes the decisions aobut what gets purchased, served, and stocked in your home).
  • For the serious soda consumer, start with a switch to diet soda and wean down to 1 can per day.  Aim to reduce your child’s soda drinking to 3-4 cans/week.  Eventually, use soda (diet or regular) on an occasional basis.
  • Use alternatives to soda:  Try water!  Serve iced water, or flavor water with a splash of  juice or a squeeze of lemon.  Healthy options such as milk or 100% juice (in recommended amounts) can enhance your child’s overall nutrient intake and be a satisfying drink.

Eliminating or seriously reducing the amount of soda your child is consuming can have a major impact on their health and body weight.  Remember, a child can experience a 10# weight gain in a year, just from the extra calories that a daily can of soda can provide.  And over the course of a year, this daily drink can translate to 33# of sugar consumed.

Why Weight? to take a realistic look at the amount of soda your children and family are consuming?  Why Weight? to find healthy alternatives to soda?  Why Weight? to minimize soda, a dirty dozen contributor to childhood obesity, in YOUR family?

It begins with YOU…Why Weight?

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Are you worried about your child’s weight?  Confused by the advice you hear on TV, from the doctor, or from friends?  Unsure of how and where to start turning things around for your family?  Overwhelmed with the magnitude of it all?

Childhood obesity is complicated.  Any adult who has struggled with correcting lifelong behaviors and habits around eating and exercise knows how difficult a process this can be…and knows that many of these patterns began during childhood.  It’s no coincidence that the obesity epidemic marches on while the dieting industry continues to make billions of dollars! 

And while there is an abundance of research on the contributors to childhood obesity, it can be frustrating and confusing to translate these findings into healthy and effective family practices.  Childhood obesity is an accelerating problem in our country.  Many scientists, policy-makers, and health care professionals work diligently to curtail this epidemic, yet the problem persists.  Who is to take responsibility?  Parents?  Pediatricians?  Schools?  Media?  Everyone?  Nobody?  Somebody…YOU.

Why Weight? is a 12-part series for parents—the gatekeepers to the daily decisions made about food, eating, and activity for their families.  This series will dedicate itself to taking an in-depth look at the factors and behaviors that contribute to obesity in children.  My hope is that parents will be able to use this series as a guide to assess their own environment and family behaviors and make reasonable changes within their homes.   Why Weight? challenges all parents to raise their sensitivity and awareness levels with regard to what and how their child is eating and moving while taking the lead in making effective changes.  Every positive change helps promote your child’s health and helps prevent the development and progression of childhood obesity. There is nothing to lose but habits and behaviors that DO NOT WORK for your child’s overall health and well-being!

Why Weight?

The Dirty Dozen is a list based on my interactions with real children and teens who struggle with childhood overweight and obesity.  These commonalities ring true with many clients, and while individually, these contributors certainly have great impact, it is the combination of multiple factors that produce patterns of behaviors that support weight gain in children.

Each week I will focus on one childhood obesity contributor, so that you can focus on changing the factors that apply to you, one at a time.  Why Weight?

The Dirty Dozen (in no particular order):

1.  Drinking Soda 

2.  Use of Convenience Foods

3.  Daily Sugar Consumption

4.  Hidden & Obvious Fat Sources

5.  Hunger

6.  Balance and Rhythm of Meals and Snacks

7.  Not Enough Produce (Fruits & Vegetables)

8.  Too Much “Screen Time”

9.  Activity (Structured vs. Unstructured)

10.  Portion Distortion

11.  Bad Habits Start Early (Sneaking, Hoarding, Skipping)

12.  The Magic of Mealtime

This series is not a replacement for the ongoing help, motivation, and monitoring your child will need if he/she is struggling with obesity and its complications.  Seek the expertise of a Registered Dietitian (RD)–and if you are lucky enough to have an RD that specializes in pediatrics, go for it!

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