Simple changes can make a big difference when it comes to childhood obesity. And nutrition advocates say the way to combat it is one child at a time.
“Sadly, in many areas, access to nutritional foods is not as accessible as it is to fat foods,” Dr. Paul Schwartzberg, program director for pediatric residency at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, said in regard to the contributing factors behind this trend. “It’s difficult for people to make reasonable choices on food and portions in today’s ‘supersize’ age, and people are often not educated on the concept of calories and how many calories certain foods contain.”
Adria Magenheim, a Colts Neck, N.J.-based nutritionist, agrees that the food children consume is a key culprit.
“The amount of processed food, sugar and corn syrup that kids eat today amounts to nothing but empty calories, from a nutritional perspective,” she said.
“Combine this with the popularity of sedentary activities such as television and video games,” Schwartzberg said, “and we have a concern of epidemic proportion.”
Schwartzberg also noted that a genetic component often comes into play, with estimates revealing that children who have one obese parent stand a 50% chance of being obese themselves. This risk rises to 80% if both parents are obese.
Time for a change
Schwartzberg is one of many who are striving to make a difference locally. As the medical director for the Neptune-based Let’s Improve Fitness Together (LIFT) program, he regularly works with overweight and obese children and teens to help them establish more sound eating habits and activity levels.
The program teaches kids how to read food labels and calorie counts and promotes fun and easy ways to exercise both outside and indoors. The program also targets parents, who often need to be motivated and positively engaged themselves in order to lead their kids by example.
“The LIFT Program was developed to help instill positive lifestyle habits and to offer guidelines on what people could do on their own,” Schwartzberg said.
Schwartzberg is not alone in his concern over childhood obesity trends or in his desire to help combat the issue. In Marlboro, N.J., Virginia McDonald, executive director of Turtle Creek Learning Academy, sees it as her school’s obligation to help children and their parents make healthier choices.
“The statistics on childhood obesity require all of us to get our heads out of the sand. As a nation, we owe our kids better,” she said.
A significant chunk of Turtle Creek’s curriculum is devoted to lessons on physical activity, nutrition and healthy alternatives to the more fried, sugary and processed foods that tempt today’s kids at every turn. McDonald regularly involves her 100-plus students, ages 2 through 6, in cooking demonstrations so they can participate in making and eating healthy snacks such as vegetables with hummus or fruit smoothies.
Schwartzberg offered a simple “5-3-2-1-0 Rule” to children and their parents struggling with weight issues: “Five servings of fruits and vegetables, three balanced meals with no snacking in between, a maximum of two hours of (TV or video games), one hour of exercise and zero sugary beverages or sweets per day. Even one little change that you can commit to can have a big impact.”