By Bev Grey

Unlike chickenpox, polio and even the common cold, obesity is not spread by germs in the air or by shaking hands with an obese person. Although the number of overweight and obese people in the United States keeps rising (the last numbers I heard were around 60% of adults and 25% of children), obesity can’t be cured by a vaccine. Washing your hands more often won’t help keep you slim and trim.

We’ve all heard a lot of news recently about bird flu and the possibility of a worldwide pandemic. A pandemic could kill millions of people around the world in a very short time. Obesity can also be a killer, but may involve a much slower and more painful death.

Children who are obese are now developing diseases which, in the past, were only seen in adults. Type II diabetes was formerly called adult-onset diabetes because it was rarely seen in children. It is now frequently being diagnosed in children under the age of 10. Type II diabetes can cause very serious health problems, including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, amputation of limbs and much more. Parents who wouldn’t dream of starting the car unless their children were buckled securely in their car seats are turning a blind eye to their children’s potential health problems caused by poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles.

What is the answer? Children don’t need temporary diets. Their bones and muscles are growing rapidly, and they need good nutrition to ensure proper growth. The best solution is a lifestyle change.

Start by restricting the time your children watch TV or play video games. Most pediatricians recommend no more than 2 hours a day of screen time (except for homework done on the computer). Will your children be angry at you? Probably, at least for the first few days, but they’ll get over it! Remind them that you love them, and loving them means that you will sometimes have to make decisions based on what is best for them and not necessarily what they prefer. Use some of the time that they now spend watching TV for family activities involving physical activity. Play ball in the yard or park, romp with the dog, fly a kite, take a walk or bike ride after dinner. Take turns picking the activity for the day.

Eat more meals at home and limit fast food or pizza delivery to one or two times a week. Make your pizzas veggie pizzas with thin crust, and skip the extra cheese. Stop buying sodas for home use, and drink water, fat-free milk or unsweetened iced tea. Instead of snacking on chips, cookies and ice cream, stock up on fresh fruit, low-fat yogurt and nuts. Make sugar-free gelatin with fresh fruit. Spread low-fat plain yogurt on a chocolate graham cracker, add another cracker to make a sandwich, and freeze. The result is a healthier “ice-cream sandwich.” Look for other low-calorie snacks in magazines or online recipe sites.

If you need help planning well-balanced meals, look for programs or websites that offer menus based on the USDA Food Pyramid, or consult with a registered dietitian if your family has food allergies or medical conditions that restrict certain food groups.

If your child is overweight, his primary concern may be physical appearance. That is important, too, because his self-esteem and confidence may suffer when he’s teased or bullied by other children. Assure him that you want to help and that changing his lifestyle will improve his appearance and confidence at the same time it improves his health.

Treat obesity like the serious health risk that it is, and let’s work toward starting a “pandemic” of good health for future generations!

Bev Grey is founder of Grandma’s Healthy Kids Club, a program to help children and adults improve their eating and exercise habits through age-appropriate membership packages based on the USDA Food Pyramids. She is also author of “The Project,” a fictional story for children and educators or medical professionals who work with children.

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