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"I credit my mom with modeling the right behaviors," Angela Lemond, Registered Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Shine. "She cooked a healthy meal every night and that was our only option." Lemond, who specializes in pediatric and family nutrition, says the research is clear that parental behavior and modeling has a significant impact on childhood obesity.
"Parents have the responsibility for providing food, meal planning, and eliminating distractions at the table," says Lemond. "The responsibility of the child is to eat or not to eat." She is concerned that today's parents are "letting kids dictate what food is being served." She sympathizes with parents' desire to nourish their children, but points out that this often means that they are exclusively serving meals of "chicken nuggets or mac and cheese" to picky eaters which are high in fat and calories and low on nutrition. She points out that a generation ago, "You ate what you were served or waited until the next meal."
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On the other hand, Lemond says her mom "didn't force feed. Nutritionists don't advocate the clean plate club," a rule that can thwart children from developing a natural sense of when they are still hungry and when they are actually full.
Another important factor in helping kids to learn to enjoy nutritious choices is exposing them to a variety of foods—and not giving up if they say they don't like something new. "Even though parents want their kids to eat healthy," explains Lemond, "They have a misconception that if kids reject it once, it should be taken off the meal plan."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of childhood obesity has tripled over the past 30 years. Overweight children are at a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. They are also prone to low self-esteem and stigmatization by their peers.
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Current research shows that there are many habits that parents can adopt—starting at pregnancy—that will help prevent kids from becoming overweight.
- Maternal Body Mass Index (BMI) has an impact on baby's birth weight which may, in turn, predict adult overweight. Maintain a healthy weight before and during pregnancy. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, discuss what an appropriate weight gain is for your body size and frame with your doctor.
- Breastfeeding women should eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Babies who are exposed to certain flavors through nursing are less picky when they are weaned.
- Let your baby wean itself with age-appropriate finger foods. Some research shows that babies who are spoon fed purees tend to be more overweight and prefer sugary tastes than babies who help feed them selves.
- Is your toddler picky? Don't give up. It may take as many as 15 exposures to get a toddler to try a new food.
- Turn off the TV. A recent study by the University of Montreal showed that for every extra hour per week watched by 2-4 year-olds, waist size increased and athletic ability (as indicated by explosive muscle power) decreased.
- Eat together. From toddlers to teens, the research shows that children are healthier when they regularly sit down and eat meals with their families.
- Lose weight yourself. A 2012 study by the University of California shows reports that the number one factor in the success of an obese or overweight child's ability to attain a healthy weight is parental weight loss.
- Engage in some sort of physical activity. Kids who say their parents are sedentary are 50% more likely to be medically unfit themselves.
To learn more strategies, visit the Academy's website for families, Kids Eat Right. They provide a wealth of information on children's nutrition from birth to the teen years.
— Sarah B. Weir
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