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Several months ago we discovered the wallpaper on the family computer had been changed. What now greeted the user was a picture of an obese giraffe standing on the Serengeti Plain with the caption, “McDonald’s Hits Africa.” Our 12-year-old son found the picture on the Internet. It’s a funny-looking picture that told us he made the connection between fast food and obesity, which was encouraging.
Katherine Flegal of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) some years ago started comparing data from 1960 through 2000 regarding the number of overweight people. In 1960 the average weight for an adult woman was 128 pounds. In 2000 the average weight had increased to 157 pounds. For men ages 40 to 49 the average jumped from 142 to 169 pounds. In addition, people were entering adulthood at higher weights because weight gain was starting in childhood and adolescence. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the CDC National Center For Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
What’s changed in the past 20 years? One thing is portion size. Dinner plates have increased from 8.5 inches to 12 inches in diameter, allowing for more food at each sitting. Other differences include growth in the number of chain restaurants, families eating out more often, and a substantial increase in time spent on electronic entertainment while there’s been a decrease in exercise.
Meanwhile, food marketers have found new ways to advertise junk food to children. Multimedia online games, online quizzes, even phone apps sell food to children. The Internet has far fewer regulations than television and many more ways for children to interact and share (through email and social networks) these marketing activities with other children. We have moved well beyond baseball cards in bubble gum, Tony the Tiger and “Happy Meals” containing the latest movie character. Susan Linn, a psychiatric instructor at Harvard Medical School and the director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, has demonstrated a link between junk food marketing, poor diets and childhood obesity.
David Kessler, M.D., former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, believes the fast food industry has researched and developed combinations of sugar, fats and salts to stimulate appetites, increasing our desire and consumption. He suggests the sugar, fat, salt combination stimulates the brain. The food industry is in the business of selling food: the more we eat, the better the business. And business is very good. Which brings us back to the obese giraffe.
Combating the influence of all this advertising and research is a formidable task for parents. If you are concerned about your child’s weight, think of your effort at a lifestyle of healthful eating and moderate exercise as a long-term project—not a sprint but a marathon. Research is clear that diets don’t work. What does work are small changes sustained over a long period of time.
For instance, if the family eats fast food four times a week, cut it to two. Add a bottle of water a day. Serve food on a smaller plate. Rather than cut out certain foods, allow them in a smaller portion. (Remember, some foods are harder than others to resist.) Keep trying to slowly improve the family’s healthy lifestyle.
As for exercise, keep in mind something is better than nothing. It doesn’t have to be a killer workout to have value. A 20-minute walk three to four times a week is a good start.
What else can parents do to help a child whose weight is excessive?
• Limit electronic time for your child. This will reduce inactive time as well as decrease exposure to ads for unhealthy food.
• Encourage healthy eating by serving more fruits and vegetables and buying fewer sodas and high-calorie, high-fat snack foods.
• Avoid power struggles over food. With younger children, parents have more control over what foods are available. As children grow older they have many other sources of influence. If it is becoming a struggle, introduce a third person to help such as a nutritionist, a pediatrician, coach or therapist.
• Set a good example.
• Move away from weight and focus on what is healthy.
In April of this year, the federal government proposed new guidelines for the industry on how food is advertised to children. The guidelines recommend food manufacturers either produce healthier foods or stop advertising them to children. In the meantime be aware and informed of what your kids are exposed to and be a smart consumer. ■
Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.