To Fight Childhood Obesity, Invite Kids into the Kitchen

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An American proverb cautions that "More die of food than famine" - which apparently rings true considering the state of the nation's waistline, particularly our children's. Childhood obesity is at epidemic levels, and nowhere is this problem more acute than in the African American community.

The statistics are alarming: While African Americans comprise 10% of the U.S. population, the black community is disproportionately affected by obesity. Roughly 12% of white children are obese compared to 21% of black children. And African American girls suffer the highest obesity rate of any ethnic and gender group in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The problem is bad and growing worse. In only a 30 year period, obesity in the African American and Hispanic communities increased a staggering 120% compared to 50% among white children. What’s more, obese children often remain obese in adulthood, increasing their risk for such leading causes of death as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and cancer.

Many factors have contributed to this epidemic, from genetics to cultural influences, and from poverty to sedentary lifestyles. But at least some of the fault lies with the business practices of companies that seek to increase their profits by disproportionately marketing low-priced, high-calorie, low-nutrient-dense foods to the African American consumer. Kids love supersized meals. And the effects of all these negative influences are only exacerbated by the limited availability of healthy food choices in low-income neighborhoods.

The costs of obesity are astronomical, both in economic and human terms. Obesity costs an estimated $80 billion annually in health treatments and lost productivity. It also kills 112,000 Americans each year, and while the cloud of death hovers overhead, obesity severely affects the manner in which youth live. Studies show that obesity significantly lowers self-esteem by early adolescence and can cause children to engage in high-risk behaviors, such as smoking or drinking alcohol.

What can families do to fight obesity? The Association of Junior Leagues recommends a number of things through its Junior Leagues’ Kids in the Kitchen program:

  • Emphasize the positive aspects of a healthy lifestyle and diet — the fun of playing outdoors, for example, and the variety of fresh fruit you can get year-round.
  • Make healthy food choices, and hold family taste tests to sample healthy new foods. Add vegetables to dishes your kids already like. Offer crisp vegetables with low-fat dips when kids are most hungry. Look for whole wheat, whole grain or oats first on the ingredient list. Choose skinless chicken and turkey, fish, lean beef and pork or beans. Switch from whole milk to 2% then to 1% or skim for children over the age of 2. And buy fruit in season to ensure the best taste.
  • Take your children food shopping. If they get to pick out healthy foods, there’s a better chance they will opt to eat it.
  • Make your kitchen “kid-centric.” Inviting children to help prepare meals is a sure way to get them excited about eating healthy foods. The Junior Leagues’ Kids in the Kitchen program, which includes events in over 235 local communities, has great ideas for doing this. The program’s website features a virtual recipe collection from celebrity chefs, local restaurateurs, celebrity moms and nutrition experts, designed to teach young children healthy eating habits at an early age.
  • Eat as a family. Research shows that family dining produces healthier eating habits. Children who eat alone consume fewer fruits, vegetables and calcium-rich foods than those who eat with their parents. Teens who eat frequent family dinners are less likely than other teens to have sex at young ages, get into fights, or be suspended from school, and they are at lower risk for thoughts of suicide.
  • Create an environment that fosters physical activity. Monitor the amount of time that children play video games, surf the Internet or watch television. “The obesity concern is not just physical activity, it\'s nutrition, it\'s access to areas where kids can engage in physical activity or physical education or sports or just play,” says Eunice Moore, director of the office of health and physical education of the Detroit Public Schools.
  • Practice what you preach. Make sure you eat healthy foods and exercise regularly to maintain your own weight. Your kids will learn by example.

These are all key ingredients in any program aimed at fighting childhood obesity by engaging kids and empowering them to make healthy choices. But bear this in mind: The best way to ensure success is to focus on small but permanent changes in eating rather than a series of larger, short-term ones that are not likely to be sustained.

Sandi Kemmish is President of The Association of Junior Leagues International, a charitable organization of women dedicated to improving their communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.

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