Lifestyle

Protecting children from developing weight problems | Gustafson

You've probably heard by now of Marshall Reid, the sixth-grader from Sanford, N.C., who managed to change his and his family's poor eating habits.

He wrote a book about the experience, titled "Portion Size Me," which was obviously inspired by the well-known documentary film, "Super Size Me," by Morgan Spurlock about the negative health effects of fast food.

Like many overweight children, Marshall was bullied and made fun of by his peers. After being called "fat" one too many times, he decided to take action and asked his mother to help him lose weight and eat more healthily. He also took up exercising with his father.

Eventually, the family made a video about their lifestyle changes and put it up on YouTube. The book that followed is filled with healthy recipes, easy to understand nutrition facts and a journal describing Marshall's journey to a new life.

"We realized that the amount of weight you drop isn't the endgame. It's about how good you feel about yourself, about making healthier choices," said Alexandra Reid, Marshall's mother in an interview with the New York Times.

Marshall is by no means alone in his struggle with weight problems at a young age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 20 percent of American kids ages 6 to 11 are now obese. Childhood obesity is one of the greatest health threats we're facing today, not just here but around the world.

What makes this story so remarkable, however, is that one child's determination to take control of his life and turn his situation around can make this much difference.

Understanding your child's nutritional needs

Parents are often confused not only about the kind of foods but also how much their young ones need at different stages of their lives. Children always want more of the foods they like, and often these are not the most nutritious choices.

Moreover, appropriate portion sizes can be difficult to determine. Deciphering serving sizes on Nutrition Facts labels is hard to do for adults. There is virtually no information that can help parents with apportionments for smaller stomachs.

The right amount of food to put on your child's plate varies with age. Toddlers should eat about a quarter of an adult's serving in one meal, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Preschoolers and younger school-age kids have greater calorie needs, especially during growth spurts. Between the age of 4 and 8, appropriate portion sizes are around one-third of those of an adult. Older children and teens will eat almost as much as their parents, but this is the time when overeating becomes particularly tempting.

Addressing the issues

For families like the Reids, weight problems can be a sensitive subject to discuss. Parents don't want to embarrass their children even more than they already are and yet the issue must be addressed before things get further out of control.

"While it may be uncomfortable to discuss weight concerns, the sooner you bring it up and help your child take action, the easier it will be to help him or her achieve a healthy weight. Ignoring it won't make it go away, and in fact, waiting until your child is older to deal with weight issues may make it harder in the long run," wrote Constance Matthiessen, a freelance writer for WebMD.

She strongly recommends tackling weight problems when a child is still young and more open to lifestyle changes. Parents, she says, must act as their child's ally, not their critic.

When it comes to making better food choices, children should be involved in the decision-making process. It gives them ownership and teaches them to take responsibility for their actions. Most importantly, parents have to be good role models.

"If parents go to fast-food restaurants and expose their child to junk food around the house, that child will develop the same habits – and those habits are extremely hard to break," Matthiessen wrote.

That's also Alexandra Reid's, Marshall's mom's experience. It's a challenge to keep up the hard-won eating and exercise regimens for the whole family.

"We are a work in progress," she said.

Aren't we all?

If you are interested in learning how to determine healthy portion sizes for children, go to "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D./Kids' Health."

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.", and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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