Today, health professionals encourage parents of even very young children to actively confront the childhood obesity epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find that obesity rates for children ages 2 to 5 have more than doubled over the past 30 years, and The White House Task Force on Obesity reports that more than half of obese children became obese by their second birthday.
"With the obesity epidemic looming large, it's absolutely crucial for parents to instill healthy habits right from the start," says Dr. Laura Jana, pediatrician and award-winning parenting author. "While this may seem like a tremendous responsibility for those still adjusting to diapers, play dates and the many other demands of new parenthood, it's not hard to help children grow up healthy by committing to some simple yet important lifestyle changes."
Jana recommends some tips:
Downsize your plate, upsize the veggies.
An easy way to cut down on unhealthy eating is to use a smaller plate. Portion sizes are now two to five times larger than in years past, and studies have shown that the bigger the serving dish, the bigger the serving is likely to be. "The more we heap on our children's plates, the more likely we are to unintentionally encourage them to overeat. Avoiding large plates can help you avoid serving supersized meals," Jana says.
What belongs on that healthier-sized plate? The USDA MyPlate program recommends making half your plate fruits and vegetables and the other half protein and grains. Other important recommendations include serving fat-free or low-fat (1 percent) milk to children older than 2, choosing lower-sodium foods and skipping sugary drinks. This simple, fresh-plated picture-of-nutritional-health program even comes with online tools to create a customized food plan for your little one.
Swap screen time for playtime.
Young children thrive and learn best through interacting with others and playing with real objects in their environment. While watching TV may be fun and entertaining, or even appear to be educational, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports it does not support learning for children younger than 2. In fact, evidence suggests that screen time may interfere with young children's healthy development and encourage sedentary behaviors and poor sleep - both are habits implicated in the obesity epidemic.
Dr. Mary Zurn, vice president of education for Primrose Schools, recommends independent play as an alternative to TV. "The early years are critical to a child's development, so it's important to ensure that children have opportunities to explore their surroundings and find out what they can make happen," Zurn says.
Singing songs, drawing, playing with puzzles and stacking blocks are fun, "unplugged" activities children can do on their own that also support their creative, problem-solving and reasoning skills.
Pediatricians recommend children ages 1 to 3 get 60 to 90 minutes of physical activity every day, while preschoolers need 90 to 120 minutes. Regular exercise helps children grow to a healthy weight, build and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints, and strengthen their hearts.
There are many fun ways to add physical activity to your family's daily routine: turn a casual stroll into a scavenger hunt, play tag, race through the sprinklers or simply get up and dance. "I love getting children to dance because it not only gives them a healthy dose of exercise, it also supports their creative development and self-expression and, as a bonus, enhances positive family time," says Jana.
Need more motivation to get your family up and moving? You could win as much as $5,000 and a $30,000 donation to your Children's Miracle Network Hospital by entering the national Family Dance-off. Entering is easy. Film your family's best dance moves and upload your video to FamilyDanceoff.com between Feb. 25 and March 23. Visit the contest website for full details.
For more parenting tips, visit www.DrZandFriends.com.