Forty years ago we ate sugary cereal for breakfast, bologna on white bread for lunch, and “creme-filled” snack cakes after school. For dinner, if Mom was feeling fancy, we had tuna tetrazzini (made with cream of mushroom soup, of course). If she was pooped, we supped on frankfurters or meatloaf with a dollop of overcooked veggies—hey, nothing a little cheese sauce couldn't fix. Then we washed it all down with an orange-flavored drink.
Fortunately, we all grew up—into parents who know a whole lot more about kids' nutrition than our own moms and dads ever did. But if we're so darn smart, why have childhood-obesity rates tripled since the 1970s? Currently, one in every six U.S. children—from toddlers to teenagers—is obese (and 77 percent of them are destined to be fat adults, too). More kids than ever before are diagnosed with weight-related problems that used to pop up only in adults: sleep apnea, joint pain, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Just one in 20 kids was hefty back when we all watched Happy Days; now, if someone were to make a show about our lives, they'd probably call it Heavy Days.
Pediatric-obesity experts say the problem is more complex than calories in vs. calories out. The real reasons for it stem from cultural and behavioral changes that have taken place since the '70s. The good news is, fixing what's wrong is easier than you'd think. Here's a look at what's weighing your kid down, and how to help him lighten up.
The muffin you ate for breakfast in elementary school was a crumb compared to today's sci-fi-sized baked goods. Blame it on the supersizing phenomenon. Food manufacturers, seizing on Americans' belief that bigger is better, increased products' heft. Restaurants started serving heaping platefuls. This marketing strategy has been hugely successful—but it's also helping to make our kids huge. Studies have shown that when a bigger portion is served to a child age 2 or older, he'll often eat more, if not all.
A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health analyzed portion sizes of drinks, desserts, fries, pizza, and burgers from 1977 to 2006, and found a few jaw-dropping jumps.Thanks to today's generous servings, these no- to low-nutrient foods now make up about one-third of 2- to 12-year-olds' diets. “We may have eaten some junky foods when we were children, too, but the portions were so much smaller,” explains Lara Field, R.D., a pediatric dietitian at the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital and the founder of feedkids.com.
What YOU Can Do
Cut premade foods into halves, thirds, or quarters before your child even sees them. (Still worried you'll starve him? Consider this: Many cookies today are 700 percent bigger than what was typical in the 1970s; your average muffin is 333 percent larger than it should be.) When you're measuring food, keep portion-size guidelines in mind (see “Measure Up,” below). Of course, you won't always be around when your kids grab a bite, so give them some basic rules. “I tell kids to use the palm of their hand—not including fingers—to gauge portion sizes for chicken, beef, fish, and tofu,” says Field. “For snacks, I tell them not to eat more than they can grab in one hand.” (Note: That plastic bag you pack with crackers for your child's snack holds way more!)
Another trick: Buy smaller dishware. Cornell University scientists proved we eat and drink less when using diminutive plates, bowls, and glasses.
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.”
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.
Exercise helps maintain weight and lowers the risk of problems like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. But how's your school-age child supposed to find time to toss a ball around when she spends an average of seven and a half hours daily using computers, video games, TV, and cell phones? Even younger children fail the screen test: 83 percent of kids ages 6 months to 6 years watch TV or videos for two hours every day. And then there's the issue of the almost 4,000 kid-oriented food and beverage ads your child sees each year, 98 percent of which promote high-fat, high-sugar, or high-sodium kiddie fare. Thanks to a decision in the '70s that prevented the Federal Trade Commission from limiting such commercials, the food and beverage industry now spends nearly $2 billion a year marketing schlocky foods and drinks directly to kids. And not just through TV—ads work their way into cell phones, podcasts, webisodes, and sneaky movie- and video-game placements. Research shows kids start asking for specific products when they're just 24 months old (47 percent of first requests are for sugary breakfast cereals). Ads can even have an instant effect: Children eat 45 percent more food when watching shows with food ads.
What YOU Can Do
Follow the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics: no TV for kids under 2 years and limit media time for older kids to one to two hours of quality programming daily. The AAP also recommends that children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Stock up on jump ropes, Frisbees, and other toys that encourage exercise. Another idea: chores. (Remember those?) Check out the chart at left to see how many calories your kid could burn helping out. Of course, your child would burn more calories playing soccer (204 calories), basketball (162 calories), or tennis (162 calories) for an hour, but then you wouldn't have a shiny car or clean garage, huh?