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Generation XL:The Rise of Childhood Obesity

Michal Horevaj

Snack Attack

When was the last time you heard someone say “Don't snack now, it'll spoil your dinner”? (Probably when your mom reprimanded you!) While we ate one snack daily in the '70s, modern kids eat three. And it's not all carrots and celery. A study from the University of North Carolina found that high-sugar and high-fat processed snacks (like cookies, chips, and crackers) account for 28 percent of 2- to 6-year-olds' diets and 35 percent of 7- to 12-year-olds'. “Forty or 50 years ago, kids snacked on strawberries,” says David Ludwig, M.D., director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Children's Hospital Boston and a professor at the Harvard Medical School. “Now they eat fruit candy.”

What YOU Can Do

Limit snacks to just one or two daily. Offer healthy choices, such as edamame, celery with peanut butter, a cheese stick, plain yogurt mixed with cut-up fruit, or even a bean soup like minestrone or lentil, suggests Field. Kids don't need more if they're eating nutritious, filling meals (whole grains, protein, healthy fats, and vegetables). “Parents complain to me that their kids are ‘picky eaters,’” says Field. “In reality, the kids may be too full from snacks to eat the healthy foods offered to them at mealtime.”

Not-So-Sweet Nothings

American kids are sugar fiends. One study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, investigated the major sources of added sugar in the diets of 2- to 18-year-olds. The culprits? Soda, vitamin water, and energy drinks (116 calories daily); fruit drinks (55 calories); and desserts such as cakes, cookies, granola bars, and candy (94 calories). For kids 2 to 8 years old, cold cereals were also a major source. “The number of calories children are getting from sugar-sweetened beverages alone is alarming,” says Jill Reedy, Ph.D., a nutritionist and researcher at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD.

What YOU Can Do

Start by cutting down—or out—all those high-cal chugs. Of the 365 added-sugar calories that kids consume daily, sweetened beverages account for 170 of them! The USDA recommends that 2- to 12-year-olds get no more than 120 to 160 empty calories daily. In case you weren't counting, their consumption of sugary drinks alone effectively uses up this “junk-food” allowance. So limit the juice boxes, soda cans, and energy-drink bottles. Provide water when your child is thirsty and serve milk with meals. In Lara Field's pediatric dietary practice, sugary beverages are the first to go. “Some kids get half their daily calorie needs in juice and soda,” she says. “Cutting these alone can be enough to get a child back to a healthy weight.” But what about 100% fruit juice? you're asking. Isn't that better for you than sugar-sweetened drinks? Yes, it has a few more nutrients, but just as many calories as pop does, and offers no fiber. Always go with an apple over apple juice.