THURSDAY, Dec. 27 (HealthDay News) -- The notion that something
is "easier said than done" could have been conceived for the task
of getting kids to eat healthy foods.
But health experts warn that the consequences can be dire if
kids don't learn to love fresh spinach, for instance, and instead
stick with a diet stacked with processed foods.
More than 23 million American children are overweight or obese,
according to government estimates, and many more children are at
risk. Overweight kids face serious health problems that were
unheard of in childhood just a generation ago, including type 2
diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even stroke before
The sooner that children start eating right, the better,
according to Dr. Pooja Tandon, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's
Hospital. "Healthy behaviors start from a very young age," she
So what's a parent to do? Numerous public and private
initiatives, from the local level to the federal government, have
been sprouting up to give parents a hand in nurturing healthy
Many experts believe that if children are more connected with
their food -- whether by growing it or having a hand in meal
preparation -- they'll be more likely to choose healthy fare.
One of the biggest movements in teaching healthy eating to
children has focused on getting young people involved in growing
their own food. First Lady Michelle Obama has invited kids to help
plant the White House kitchen garden, the U.S. Agriculture
Department has a "People's Garden" program designed to help
communities establish local gardens and the American Heart
Association's "Teaching Garden" program has helped establish
gardens in elementary schoolyards across the country as part of its
efforts to fight childhood obesity.
Efforts to pique children's interest in healthier foods and
increase their access to them have extended to getting kids
involved in food preparation, too.
Denise Hunter, president of the nonprofit FAME Assistance
Corporation, launched the Let's Move California initiative in June,
and one of its first activities was a series of cooking classes for
parents and kids. "When you come into the class, you get a
demonstration of how you make the food, and at the end of the
class, you get a grocery bag full of the ingredients," Hunter said.
"That means you can go home and put what you just learned into
practice and immediately prepare a healthy meal for your family,"
"What we really hope to create is a place where parents and children understand that they need to make healthy choices, and that becomes part of the family culture," she said. "Neither is dragging the other along. They're making healthy food and lifestyle choices together."
Some health advocates also believe that cooking classes, once a
staple of middle school curriculums, should be brought back to all
public schools. A study in the
Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviorfound that a
nutrition education program, called Cooking with Kids, not only
improved kids' cooking and nutrition skills but also incorporated
geography, math, science and cultural lessons, and improved the
youngsters' social skills through working together to prepare a
meal and then enjoying it together.
Improving access to fruits and vegetables, a problem in some
poorer neighborhoods, also has gotten some attention in the effort
to improve kids' diets. Though farmer's markets have helped fill
the void in some cities, their foods tend to be more expensive.
To counter this, and make locally grown foods more available to
lower-income families, New York City has introduced a program that
gives food stamp recipients a coupon called a Healthy Buck for
every $5 in food stamps spent at a farmer's market. Each Healthy
Buck is worth another $2 for food bought at a farmer's market.
Much of what kids eat, though, comes from foods available at
their schools. Earlier this year, the U.S. government updated
school nutrition standards, the first update in 15 years. The new
standards call for offering fruits and vegetables every day, adding
more whole-grain foods to the menu and serving only fat-free or
low-fat milk. Schools also now need to limit the amount of
saturated fat, trans fats and salt in foods.
However, Cornell University research released in July suggests
that schools may need to remove "trigger" foods from their menus as
well. When super-sweet foods, such as applesauce or fruit cocktail,
were offered as options, children were more likely to eat more
cookies, ice cream and snack cakes, the researchers found. But if
bananas and green beans were offered instead, children tended to
make healthier meal choices.
In addition, though government rules on school meals have
changed, about half of elementary schools still offer unrestricted
access to unhealthy fare, such as soda, salty snacks and sweets,
according to a study in the
Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Some schools, though, are working hard to reduce access to junk
food. A study in the
International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical
Activityreported on one program that replaced food and beverage
rewards in classrooms with small prizes. And, instead of bake sales
and pizza parties, schools turned to healthy events like
jog-a-thons as fund-raisers -- and made more money in the process,
the study found.
Students in participating schools also reduced the amount of
junk food they consumed by 30 percent, according to the study.
Attempts to limit access to junk food has spread beyond home and
school, however. The Disney Corporation, for instance, said in June
that it would now require advertisers to meet strict nutritional
standards to be allowed to advertise on its television channels,
radio stations and websites. In addition, Disney said it was
significantly reducing the amount of sodium in the children's meals
at Disney's amusement parks.
Perhaps one of the most controversial steps aimed at improving
the diets of children (and adults) came recently from Michael
Bloomberg, the New York City mayor. He proposed a ban on most
sugary drinks, such as soda and fruit drinks, larger than 16 ounces
that are sold in the city. According to the proposal, "with every
additional sugary beverage a child drinks daily, his/her odds of
becoming obese increase by 60 percent." In September, a city panel
voted to implement the ban.
The U.S. government's "We Can" initiative has more on steps you
can take at home to
Read more about "teaching gardens"
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