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Sizing Up – Why Are Our Kids Getting So Fat? By Dr. Diana Fatayerji, M.S., Ph.D.

Most of us are aware that the incidence of childhood obesity has increased. Is this something we should be concerned about? As parents, we face concerns for our children over alcohol, drugs, sex, and bullying. Does obesity merit the same concern?

In 2002 the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that 15.5% of children were seriously overweight, with another 15% at risk of becoming so. This is triple the rate of only 20 years earlier. If this trend continues it is estimated that by 2020 a fifth of all boys and a third of all girls will be obese.

Obesity is associated with a wide variety of health problems. These include diabetes, stroke, heart disease, breathing difficulties during sleep, gallstones, osteoarthritis, cancer, and a reduced life expectancy. In addition, obesity impacts emotional health through low self-esteem and poor social life. With these statistics it is obvious that changes are needed. However, weight management is never easy and it can be a very emotive subject.

How we address childhood obesity needs the cooperation of parents, educators and governmental regulatory bodies. Changes implemented now will affect the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Why are our children becoming obese?
Some people claim that weight is genetic. Although genetics can play a role, the recent increase in obesity has been too rapid to be the result of genetics. It actually comes down to lifestyle—eating too many high-calorie foods together with low activity levels.

With the advent of single-parent families, or with both parents working, meal times come down to convenience. This includes fast food, restaurants, take-out and prepared or frozen dinners. These foods are quick, fit the budget and meet the child’s preferences.

However, the portion sizes are too large and the foods are generally high in fats and sugars and low in nutrition.

A child’s taste preference is acquired. If a child is brought up eating whole grains, vegetables and fruits then she will enjoy these foods. If a child is accustomed to eating processed foods with added fats, sugar and salt then he will find healthy foods bland. It is much easier to start healthy habits early than to change bad habits later on. It takes a conscious effort on behalf of the parent to provide healthy meals, especially when their child requests the food or snacks she saw advertised on the television. Offering healthy alternatives can be challenging.

There is only so much we can do to influence our child’s food choices; especially once they are at school or visiting with friends. What we can do is explain to them the harm that certain foods such as soda can cause, while emphasizing the benefits of healthier foods. However, this assumes that parents can see past cleaver advertising and know what foods are really healthy.

We need to approach the childhood obesity epidemic from many different angles. For example, we need to:

  • Educate children and parents about healthy eating and exercise
  • Regulate advertising directed at children
  • Apply taxes on junk foods
  • Supplement the cost of healthy alternatives
  • Standardize portion sizes for kids’ meals
  • Provide healthy snacks and meals at school and enforce nutritional labeling on all snack foods and fast foods
  • Additionally, clever advertising could be developed to teach children about healthy eating and to promote healthy meals and snacks.
  • We also need to encourage our children to be more active.

Children’s activity levels have declined markedly in recent years. Children are more likely to be driven to school than to walk or cycle. Their leisure time is often spent watching television, playing video or computer games, e-mailing friends, searching the web, or on the telephone.  The BuzzBack Report estimates that the average teen spends a total of 58 hours a week on these inactive pastimes, compared to twelve hours a week on sports and exercise.

We need to bring back more physical education at school; enroll in after-school sports; develop safe environments where children can play, and provide affordable summer sports-camps. To achieve these changes we need governmental support. However, as parents, we can start by limiting the time our children spend in front of the computer or television and encourage sports and family activities.

What changes can you make at home?
Some people claim that weight is genetic. Although genetics can play a role, the recent increase in obesity has been too rapid to be the result of genetics. It actually comes down to lifestyle—eating too many high-calorie foods together with low activity levels.

It is easier to eat the wrong foods and to be inactive. However, if we care for the health of our children we need to start making changes in our lifestyles: remember, we can lead by example.

Talk to your kids about what they eat. Discuss the health risks associated with popular junk foods. Explain how eating well can improve their performance academically as well as at their favorite sport. Make them aware that although superstars may be advertising soda they may not be drinking it.

Have your children start each day with a healthy breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. A healthy breakfast can improve your child’s academic performance and behavior, as well as prevent them from snacking on junk foods.

The BuzzBack Report estimates that 18% of teens skip breakfast on weekdays, while those that eat breakfast, choose high carbohydrate and sugary foods with little nutritional value—ready cereals, cereal bars, bagels, toast, frozen pancakes/waffles, muffins.

A healthy breakfast may include eggs, whole grain toast, and pure peanut butter, unsweetened yogurt or cottage cheese and fruit. For those that do not like to eat breakfast try healthy shakes, or at the very least provide a healthy snack for later.

Healthy Shake  1

Blend together: 

1 Tbsp whey protein
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 banana
1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa
1 Tbsp ground flax seeds
Water or milk substitute
Stevia to sweeten

Healthy Shake  2

Blend together: 

2 Tbsp whey protein
1 cup berries
1/2 banana/apple/orange

Most children prefer foods that are easy to eat, do not smell and survive being at the bottom of their school bag. Try packing whole wheat tortillas rolled with chicken and salad; peanut butter and all-fruit jelly; chicken drumsticks; home made fortified-muffins; slices of fruit and their favorite nuts; “chocolate milk” made from whey protein powder.

Fortified Muffins (makes 12)

Combine in a large bowl: 

1 cup whole wheat flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup almond flour
1/2 cup powdered milk or milk substitute
1/2 cup chopped nuts, raisins or blueberries

Add and combine quickly: 

1 cup  plain yogurt or milk substitute
2 eggs
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup honey or date sugar
Line a muffin tin with paper muffin cups
Fill two-thirds full
Bake at 400°F for 18 minutes, or until lightly browned

According to the BuzzBack Report, the top ten most frequently eaten snack foods are:

1 Potato chips or tortilla chips
2 Cookies
3 Chewing gum
4 Fresh fruit
5 Ice cream
6 Candy bars
7 Popcorn or Pretzels
8 Crackers
9 Cereal bars or Granola bars
10 Yogurt

Although healthy snacks such as smoothies, dried fruit and nuts, and energy bars were featured they were not eaten as often. Also, these healthyfoods can be of varying nutritional value. Smoothies often contain added sugar and little fresh fruit. Energy bars and cereal bars are frequently glorified candy bars containing added sugars and hydrogenated fats.

For healthy snacks try dried fruits and nuts, better energy bars (such as Jay Robb bars, organic bars or balance outdoor bars), healthy smoothies, yogurts, baked chips, vegetable sticks with guacamole or hummus, apple slices and peanut butter, cottage cheese and fruit, or yogurt Popsicles.

Yogurt Popsicles

Blend together:

Plain yogurt and frozen concentrated orange juice.
Pour into Popsicle containers and freeze.

Fast Food options
Some fast food restaurants have healthy options, although the portions are often too large. For example, Rubios has a HealthMex chicken taco, burrito or chicken salad. At most restaurants, you can create your own healthy options by avoiding all fried foods and foods containing cheese and opting instead for grilled fish and chicken.

Mexican Restaurants:
Avoid the chips, sour cream and cheeses. Choose soft corn tacos with grilled fish or chicken, salads, or share a grilled chicken burrito without cheese or sour cream.

Asian Restaurants:
Choose steamed rice with vegetables. Make sure that the chicken or shrimp are not breaded. Some restaurants will use less oil than others—in general, Thai restaurants use oil more lightly, but stay clear of the coconut milk and peanuts sauces.

Japanese Restaurants:
can be very healthy if you avoid the tempura and fried options. Choose a sushi roll, miso soup, and soybeans.

At most restaurants, you can order a salad with a dressing on the side. Alternatively, choose grilled fish or chicken with steamed vegetables.



diana_fatayerji_150pxsqDR. DIANA FATAYERJI, M.S., Ph.D., graduated from Sheffield University, England, with a Masters in Human Nutrition and a Doctorate in Clinical Biochemistry. She has a private Nutritional Practice in San Diego, California where she treats both adults and children with specific nutritional issues. Diana’s background in biochemistry and physiology enables her to identify metabolic imbalances and to treat these using diet, nutritional support and traditional herbs. For further information visit: