Posts Tagged ‘Childhood Obesity’

The Treats Can Be the Scariest Part of Halloween

October 26th, 2014 at 6:10 pm by timigustafson

As every year, millions of American kids will go from door to door this week, dressed up in imaginative costumes, asking for chocolates and candy. As every year, adults will be happy to comply, filling entire baskets and pails with the kind of stuff that we all know is not good for the health of anyone, let alone growing children. But there you go, it’s a tradition.

Americans spend well over $2 billion just for sweets on Halloween, according to the National Retail Federation, which conducts surveys of sales trends and projections worldwide. And the expenditures have kept rising over the years to the point where the average family now pays out between $80 and $100 on this one holiday, according to Forbes.

Obviously, a once-a-year-occasion can hardly be blamed for the childhood obesity crisis we are facing, not just in the United States but increasingly around the globe. However, the ever-growing consumption of sugary foods and drinks, resulting in an array of chronic illnesses not traditionally associated with children, such as diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, and cancer, is a serious worry.

Approximately 13 million children and adolescents in the U.S. are currently diagnosed with weight problems and related complications. Despite of hopeful reports in the media, these dismal statistics have not significantly improved in recent times, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When you look at the larger picture, you see it’s not just people’s behavior during the holidays, but how the food retail industry has designed its strategies to make us buy cheap and nutritionally empty products like candy and sodas without thinking or even noticing that raises concern, according to a recent study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), titled “Sugar Overload: Retail Checkout Promotes Obesity.”

“The [supermarket] checkout is a powerful marketing strategy,” said Jessica Almy, CSPI’s Senior Nutrition Policy Counsel and lead author of the study report. “It works on children as well as adults. People tell us they buy things they didn’t expect to buy when they buy it at the checkout,” she said in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA.

The problem is not so much that people squeeze in an occasional snack they hadn’t planned for, but the fact that the extra calories are not being offset by reduced food intake elsewhere, the report contends. And it would be one thing if we were talking about an “unplanned banana,” Almy said. Instead, it usually is an unplanned candy bar or bag of chips.

The CSPI report calls checkout displays of snack foods nothing less than a contribution to an enormous public health burden caused by obesity and poor nutrition. Its omnipresence by itself is a cause to these effects.

“Food availability has an influence on what and how much people eat. Experimental trials demonstrate that snack food consumption increases when foods are put within arm’s reach or are simply visible,” it says in the report.

Of course, ultimately it is up to the individual, especially parents, to make the decision whether to give in to temptations or forego them. Luckily, tasty treats, including sweet ones, don’t have to be unhealthy. There are plenty of alternatives to the usual chocolates and candy that can get you and your family into the holiday spirit without breaking the calorie bank (and perhaps save you a trip to the dentist). Why not hand out some granola bars, small bags of mixed nuts, whole-wheat crackers, glazed apples, and other items that taste great and do less damage? Just a thought. Happy Halloween.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Kids Gain More Weight When Out of School, Study Finds

June 18th, 2014 at 11:34 am by timigustafson

The summer months should be a time when children are especially active, play sports, enjoy the outdoors, and perhaps even eat better because there are more occasions for family dinners. In other words, it should be a time when they are their healthiest. Not so, a new study found. In fact, it is during school vacations that many kids put on extra pounds, according to scientists from Harvard University who took a closer look at the phenomenon.

For their research, they analyzed several studies on weight gain among children ages 5 to 17, and found on average a faster rate of weight increase during vacation times compared to the rest of the school year.

Most vulnerable were youngsters who already struggled with weight issues. Their weight accelerated the fastest while they were out of school.

Obviously, there are no simple answers to why this is happening, said Rebecca Franckle, a doctoral student and research assistant at Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study report, to HealthDay Reporter.

It’s possible that children have more opportunities to be sedentary while they stay at home. Especially kids who live in unsafe neighborhoods may be spending more time watching TV or playing video games. Or perhaps, it’s a lack of structure when they are not having classes and other activities, and they get bored, passing the time with snacking. Lack of supervision in the daytime hours may also play a role.

The researchers noted that weight gain took place more predominantly among poor minority children.

“There may be a trend in increased rate of weight gain during summer school vacation, particularly for high-risk groups, including certain racial/ethnic populations and overweight children and adolescents,” wrote Ms. Franckle in her report.

Although the nutritional quality of school breakfasts and lunches has often been the target of criticism, for many poor children those are the only substantial meals available to them all day. During vacations, that security net is absent. Fast food and snack items are oftentimes the only alternatives, which, of course, is detrimental to their health.

Without greater access to recreational facilities, physical activity programs, and summer food programs, the resulting weight gain may further exacerbate health disparities between poor children and their better-off peers, Ms. Franckle suggested.

The effects of these trends are serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity rates have more than doubled among children and quadrupled among adolescents in the United States over the past 30 years. One third of children and teenagers are now overweight or obese.

Recent studies found that serious health complications can come from weight problems at young ages, including diabetesheart disease, and liver damage. It will take enormous efforts on behalf of the youngest victims of the obesity crisis to turn these developments around.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Childhood Obesity Has Lasting Consequences, Study Finds

February 1st, 2014 at 2:34 pm by timigustafson

Parents of overweight children may think that a little baby fat is harmless and will disappear over time as their kids grow older, and often that is indeed the case. However, according to a new study, kindergartners with weight problems are four times more likely to become obese as adolescents than their normal-weight peers. The sad fact is that certain tracks are set early, and they can lead to struggles with weight and related diseases for a lifetime.

“A lot of risk may be set by the age of five, so you really have to focus on those very young ages,” said Dr. Solveig Cunningham, professor of global health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and lead author of the study report. “What we are seeing is, among the kids that become obese, a lot of that happens the first few years in elementary school,” she added.

Even an excessively high birth weight may be associated with obesity risk, said Dr. Cunningham. Her research found that obesity rates at kindergarten age were twice as high for babies weighing more than 8.8 pounds at birth compared to those whose birth weight was lower.

The findings confirmed previous studies on correlations between obesity during childhood and throughout adolescence and adulthood. All concluded that the earlier children become overweight, the harder it will be to overcome weight problems and undo health damages later on, which can include diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and cancer.

Childhood obesity has more than doubled in young children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The percentage of obese children aged 6 to 11 years in the United States increased from 7 to 18 percent; similarly, the percentage of obese adolescents aged 12 to 19 years went from 5 to 18 percent over the same time period.

In order to curb these dismal trends, parents, healthcare providers, schools and policy makers must work together to create a health-promoting environment from the start.

“It will take a groundswell effort from all partners to make a lasting impact on getting kids to eat right,” says Jill Castle, a Registered Dietitian who specializes in pediatric nutrition.

Parents are bombarded with information about nutrition for their young ones, but it is a hodge-podge of ever-changing and sometimes contradictory advice, which leaves them more confused than educated, she says. It is up to pediatricians and other healthcare professionals to fill in the gaps and help parents better understand the extraordinary importance of nutritional well-being at a young age.

Parents need to lead by example, meaning that their own actions matter greatly when it comes to cultivating good eating habits at home. That starts with making healthy choices at the grocery store. All kids can find in the fridge or pantry is what parents put there. At least as long as their children are too young to buy their own food, parents function as gatekeepers – and they should take that job seriously.

Schools also play a major role, and much more work needs to be done here. Despite of increased legislative efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches, not enough funding is made available to make a real difference. Especially children from low-income families desperately need these meals, which are oftentimes the only food source they can depend on all day.

Last but not least, as a society, we must come to a clearer understanding that millions of overfed and undernourished children are a concern for all of us. As the First Lady, Michelle Obama, once put it, “Childhood obesity isn’t just a public health issue, or just an economic threat, it’s a national security threat as well.”

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Why Kids Can’t Make Informed Food Choices

September 11th, 2013 at 7:43 am by timigustafson

Campbell Soup Company, the giant maker of condensed soups and other ready-to-eat products, has a new advertisement out, titled the “Wisest Kid in the Whole World.” The just released campaign depicts a young boy (with long facial hair, no less), clad in Tibetan monk-style clothing and seated in a meditative position while sucking on a circular string of noodles that comes out of a bowl placed next to one of Campbell’s iconic soup cans. The kid knows what he’s doing: “When the mouth slurps, the belly smiles,” say the captions below. He’s having fun – and he is doing something good for his nutritional health. There is wisdom in eating this product.

The underlying message, of course, is this: Kids are smart enough to know what’s good for them and therefore should take the lead when it comes to stocking the pantry. Parents, towards whom the ad is really directed, are well advised to take the young guru’s recommendations to heart and follow suit.

“Who knows more about what kids like than kids?” said Ed Carolan, president for national retail at Campbell, when asked about the campaign in an interview with the New York Times.

“Moms and dads still struggle with what we call the real-time dilemma at mealtime: they want to be happy about what their kids eat, but the kids have to like it,” he added, suggesting that Campbell soup can bridge that gap.

I’m not at all opposed to serving children (or adults) soup, although I would always recommend made-from-scratch versions over processed ones. But when there is not enough time for elaborate meal preparations, opening a can of condensed chicken noodle or tomato soup can be a reasonable substitute.

What I have a problem with, however, not only as a dietitian and health counselor but also as a mother and grandmother, is the idea that children can make consciously healthy food choices for and by themselves. Allowing kids to be in charge of their diet, especially in an unsupervised manner, is a recipe for disaster.

The fact is that at an age when their growing bodies and minds need proper nourishment the most, too many youngsters already begin to acquire poor eating habits that often lay the groundwork for lifelong health problems. Bombarded with snack food ads on daytime television and bribed by fast food chains with toys and entertainment, many children believe that the best foods are those endorsed by their favorite cartoon characters and action heroes. Regardless of taste or how they make them feel, those are the ones they choose, those are the ones they nag their parents about.

What irks me the most is the whole concept of playing tricks with young minds. Children, wise ones or not so wise ones, should never be put in a position where they, even on rare occasions, are responsible for their own wellbeing.

Yes, it can be fun to make a grocery list or roam the supermarket aisles together as a family where everyone can make a wish. But parents should never derelict their duty of supervision and guidance, especially in matters of health and nutrition. It is, and will always be, highly objectionable when outsiders like food manufacturers, restaurateurs and advertisers attempt to interfere with that parental role by sending out messages that say: You are old enough to decide for yourself – and here is what we want you to choose.

Children develop healthy as well as unhealthy eating habits early on by following the example of others, at first their parents and older siblings, later their peers and the media. By the time they reach adolescence, parental influence vanishes. If solid foundations have not been laid by then, it will be hard to make corrections for many years to come. That is the reason why parental authority cannot and must not be delegated, not even to the wisest kid on the planet…

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Food Industry: Walk the Talk to Protect Our Kids’ Health.”

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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For the first time in many years we are seeing some progress in the fight against childhood obesity in this country, according to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although the changes are not yet very significant, there is hope that the epidemic is beginning to taper off.

For the study, nearly 12 million preschoolers from 40 states plus Washington D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico had their Body-Mass-Index (BMI) measured. Most came from low-income families who received assistance from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a federal program that gives grants to state-level health and nutrition aid projects.

The majority, 21 states, showed no significant changes in their current obesity rates, while 19 states had a slight decline, and 3 states registered an increase.

One in eight preschoolers (12.5 percent) in the U.S. is diagnosed as obese. Minorities are especially hard hit, with one in five African American and one in six Hispanic children being obese.

Childhood obesity is often considered a precursor of weight problems that persist throughout adolescence and adulthood, giving cause to multiple additional health issues, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But even in their earliest stages in life, obese children can suffer from some of these illnesses as well as learning disabilities and other developmental deficiencies.

The reason why it is so important to look closely at this particular demographic – young children with low-income background – is that they face barriers like limited access to healthy foods, limited places for safe physical activity, and limited educational resources about nutrition that cannot easily be overcome, said Dr. Lindy Christine Fenlason, director of the Pediatric Weight Management Clinic at Vanderbilt University, in an interview with NBC.

The CDC calls for action to be taken on all levels, national, state and local, to provide greater material and structural support for low-income families with overweight children. Far from being a sign of wealth and abundance, as it once may have been, obesity now affects the poor in far greater numbers than the well-off. Their children may be overfed but remain dangerously undernourished.

Civic leaders and government officials should make improvements in their districts and communities wherever they can to promote healthy eating and active living for everyone, the study report says. That includes making healthy foods more affordable and recreation spaces more accessible. Schools have a responsibility to facilitate sufficient physical activity during recess and PE classes. And, most importantly, parents and childcare providers should maintain healthy standards at home and at daycare centers, not least by setting good examples.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Fighting Childhood Obesity in a Complex Environment” and “Childhood Obesity, a Disease with Devastating Effects on Multiple Levels.”

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Nearly half of all newborns in the United States are introduced too soon to solid foods, causing them digestive problems and nutritional deficiencies that can have lasting health effects as they grow older.

According to a recently published study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40 percent of interviewed mothers said they gave their babies solid food before they were four months old. Nine percent started as early as four weeks.

Pediatricians recommend that infants should be given nothing but breast milk or, if that is not an option, baby formula or a combination of both at least until the age of six months.

The researchers found that many young parents were either unaware of these guidelines or found them hard to follow, often for financial reasons. Those who turned to solid foods too early were primarily young, less educated and single mothers, according to the study.

Expenses for baby formula can be quite high, between $50 and $100 for the first month and between $1,138 and $1,188 for the first year, according to one cost calculator. Many low-income families cannot easily afford them, especially when there are other children at different growing stages.

Still, nothing good can come from feeding babies food they cannot handle yet, said Dr. T. J. Gold, a pediatrician at Tribeca Pediatrics in Brooklyn in an interview with the New York Times. Before they can sit and hold their heads up without help, it can be difficult if not outright dangerous to put solid food in their mouths. They also don’t have the right gut bacteria for digesting it yet, which can lead to gastroenteritis and diarrhea and interfere with proper nutrient absorption. Long-term problems can include obesity, diabetes, eczema and celiac disease, he added.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), formerly the American Dietetic Association (ADA), recommends breastfeeding as an “important public health strategy for improving infant and child morbidity and mortality.” In a position statement, the AND says it regards exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and breastfeeding with complementary foods from six months until at least one year of age as the ideal feeding pattern for infants.

What makes breast milk the ideal source of nutrition for newborns is that it offers a good balance of important nutrients that are easily digestible. Moreover, the mother’s milk changes its composition over time to fit the changing needs of her growing child.

There are also important benefits from breastfeeding for the health of the mother, including bonding with the child, increased energy expenditure, leading to faster return to pre-pregnancy weight, decreased risk for postpartum depression and improvement of parenting skills, among others.

The AND advocates a number of measures for the promotion of breastfeeding, including professional counseling for pregnant and postpartum women and their families as well as public policy changes and legislation that favors and facilitates breastfeeding.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

 

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More Realistic Goals, Longer Lasting Results

January 16th, 2013 at 10:58 am by timigustafson

The NBC hit show, “The Biggest Loser,” now in its 14th season, is well known for its rigorous (to put it mildly) workout sessions where contestants are regularly driven to the brink of collapse in the pursuit of rapid weight loss. Of course, all the huffing and puffing during the exercising also adds drama and entertainment without which the show would probably not have lasted this long.

Although the participants come from all age groups, this year’s focus is on obesity among children and adolescents, which is a good idea considering that 17 percent (12.5 million) of Americans age 2 to 19 are now diagnosed as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since 1980, obesity rates among the young have tripled, and the latest data show only slight improvements despite of stepped-up efforts by government agencies and advocacy groups to curb the trend.

While it is disheartening to see how much damage the obesity crisis is doing to all generations, programs like “The Biggest Loser” can help convey the message that it is never too early or too late to make positive changes, provided one is willing to put in the hard work. For that they should be applauded. Still, there are some disconcerting elements at play here.

With progressive success in their weight loss efforts, many of the contestants develop a high, if not inflated confidence level. Naturally, a certain amount of faith in one’s abilities is necessary just to stay motivated. However, when I hear a candidate who has still a long way to go to a healthy weight range talk about her plans for running a complete marathon in the near future, I wonder how expectations of what’s possible can sometimes spin so much out of control. Yes, it would be a headline-grabbing sensation if a once morbidly obese person could pull off one of the most challenging athletic performances known to man after just a few month of training – but is that a healthy, even desirable prospect? Why this tendency to swing from one extreme to another?

It is no secret that radical weight loss bouts over short periods of time don’t last in most cases. So-called yo-yo dieting is a well-known phenomenon in the weight loss industry. Many former “The Biggest Loser” contestants have gained at least some of their old weight back. What seems feasible within a controlled environment often doesn’t hold up when people resume their own daily routines.

And there is also no need for that. The intensity and rigor of a concentrated weight loss program cannot and should not continue indefinitely. Studies have shown that most people reap the greatest benefits from light to moderate but consistent exercise such as resistance training, fast walking or jogging for limited distances (up to 20 miles per week). More than that does not produce significantly greater advantages for physical health or longevity, according to Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans who conducted extensive research on the subject. “If anything,” he says, “it appears that less running is associated with the best protection from mortality risk. More is not better, and actually, more could be worse.”

His colleague and study report co-author, Dr. James H. O’Keefe, a specialist in preventive cardiovascular medicine, agrees. “In general, it appears that exercise, like any therapy, results in a bell-shaped curve in terms of response and benefits. To date, the data suggest that walking and light jogging are almost uniformly beneficial for health and do increase life span. But with more vigorous or prolonged exercise, the benefits can become questionable,” he said in an interview with the New York Times.

So, instead of going from years of overeating and doing no exercise whatsoever to competitive running, I suggest that the young lady in question finds some middle ground where she can manage her weight and engage in an overall health-promoting lifestyle that can make life so much better for her for the rest of her life. The same goes for the rest of us.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Food Companies Use Latest Technologies to Market Directly to Children

September 23rd, 2012 at 1:13 pm by timigustafson

Parents have long felt outgunned when battling the food industry for the hearts and minds of their children. Whenever they try to limit exposure to advertisements on TV, the Internet and in supermarkets, marketers have already found new ways to interact with their youngest customers.

The latest frontier: Ads on smartphones and tablets. New technologies allow companies to directly reach children by placing their products in games and other displays designed for touch-screen devices.

This is an especially fertile ground. Mobile apps are extremely popular with young kids as well as teenagers. And what’s even better for the industry, so far they are completely unregulated.

“The mobile games demonstrate how new technology is changing U.S. commerce, drawing tighter bonds between marketers and young consumers,” writes Anton Troianovski in an article for the Wall Street Journal.

This provides many new opportunities for food companies that have long been pressured by government agencies and advocacy groups to limit their advertising efforts aimed at children. “If [kids] have their phone with them, they can be playing these games that are basically advertisements in school and basically 24/7,” warned Jennifer Harris of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity in an interview for the article.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has made a number of attempts to impose more regulations on advertisers who target underage audiences but has never been able to get beyond issuing a few “voluntary guidelines.” In its latest initiative, the agency hopes to at least “shine some light” on current industry practices. It is unclear what that will entail.

Past proposals for regulatory measures have been rejected by Congress as too strict or burdensome, and several government agencies have eventually dropped their combined efforts to tighten control. Still, over a dozen major food companies, among them McDonald’s, Burger King, Mars Inc. and Kraft, have committed themselves to promoting more healthy foods to children, a somewhat vague but welcome step in the right direction. However, product placements on apps are not affected by this agreement.

Other increasingly common approaches marketers take are so-called cross-promotions where foods and beverages are simultaneously tied to movies, TV shows, product packaging, the Internet and in-store displays. According to one report by the FTC, film characters like Superman or Pirates of the Caribbean reappear in video games (a.k.a. “advergames”) and free downloads (a.k.a. “Webisodes”) from websites. The agency has recently asked media and entertainment companies to be more discriminatory when licensing such characters and to restrict campaigns to healthier foods and beverages when they are directed towards children. Again, there are no mandatory rules in any of these matters.

What concerns me most about these new technologies and their ability to help reach children by bypassing parental supervision is just that. Parents are supposed to be gatekeepers who protect their children from outside influences, at least in the early stages of their lives.

You may say it is still up to the adults to decide what foods are being bought and served in the home. But companies know very well about the “nag factor” and how persuasive children can be in their demands. They know that snack foods and candy are widely used as pacifiers to stave off temper tantrums. They know that their youngest targets are unable to distinguish between advertising and truth-telling, and that they can easily be manipulated. As I said before, parents find themselves routinely outgunned against this onslaught.

It would be naïve to think we can completely control the impact of new technologies on our lives and how they will be used. But that still does not absolve us from acting responsibly, especially on behalf of our children. It’s a battle worth fighting.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Eating Together as a Family Has Multiple Benefits

September 19th, 2012 at 1:49 pm by timigustafson

Is the traditional family dinner a thing of the past? Is it overvalued as an institution that was once a cornerstone of the American home but has become obsolete with changing times? In today’s households where both parents go to work and kids have busy schedules with school, homework and an array of afternoon activities, finding time for a gathering at the table seems all but impossible.

Yet, studies have shown time and again that eating together has multiple benefits for everyone involved, but especially for children, and not only for nutritional purposes but in many other aspects as well.

According to a number of study reports issued by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), children who eat at least five times a week with their family are at lower risk of developing poor eating habits, weight problems or alcohol and substance dependencies, and tend to perform better academically than their peers who frequently eat alone or away from home.

To be sure, the iconic family meal, as for example depicted by the painter Norman Rockwell, came only into American life in the mid-20th century. In the 6os and 70s, profound social, economic and technological changes quickly dissolved that short-lived idyll. Restaurant visits, take-out and TV dinners have since become the norm rather than the exception.

There are indications, however, that the old customs are coming back, at least in parts. According to the latest CASA reports, 59 percent of surveyed families said they ate dinner together at least five times a week, a significant increase from 47 percent in 1998. Whatever drives this trend, it is a development that should be welcomed.

Eating together as a family is not just about food and nutrition. It is about civilizing children, about teaching them how to become members of their society and culture, says Robin Fox, a professor who teaches anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Food has become such an ubiquitous commodity, so easily and cheaply available, we no longer appreciate its significance, he says. We have to rediscover its importance and its value. Sharing a meal with loved ones should be considered a special event, he says, that can almost take on the form of a ritual or a ceremony, as it was practiced by our ancestors for whom finding food was a constant struggle.

Besides appreciation for the value of food and the work that goes into preparing it, there are also many social elements that come into play when families share meals, says Miriam Weinstein, author of “The Surprising Power of Family Meals”. The dinner table can be the perfect environment where kids learn how to conduct conversations, observe good manners, serve others, listen, solve conflicts and compromise.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the simple act of eating at home surrounded by family will save children from developing unhealthy lifestyles or making regrettable choices down the road. It may not make them more virtuous or socially more responsible. But it can lay the groundwork for a lot of things that point them in the right direction.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “Healthy Eating Habits Can Be Learned – Mostly by Example.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Diabetes Dramatically on the Rise Among Teenagers

May 23rd, 2012 at 2:23 pm by timigustafson

Nearly a quarter of American children and adolescents is developing type 2 diabetes or has already the disease, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), published in the journal Pediatrics. Diabetes and other metabolic conditions seem to spread more rapidly among the young and are harder to treat than in adults.

The study also found that over 50 percent of overweight and obese teenagers had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Prediabetes and diabetes rates rose faster than other lifestyle-related diseases among adolescents. “This was unexpected, especially since obesity has been leveling off,” said Dr. Ashleigh May, a researcher at the CDC and lead author of the study report.

The term “prediabetes” refers to higher than normal blood sugar levels and the possibility of developing type 2 diabetes and other risks factors for heart disease, stroke and kidney disease, according to the CDC.

Not too long ago, type 2 diabetes was known as adult onset diabetes because it was virtually unheard of affecting children. But with the growing childhood obesity epidemic in recent years, more youngsters are being diagnosed with the disease every year.

Even normal-weight children are not completely safe. Of those thinner kids, 37 percent have at least one heart risk factor, said Dr. May. “Anyone who’s eating a diet high in sugar and fat will likely have problems, even if it isn’t apparent in their weight,” said Dr. Dorothy Becker, chief of endocrinology and diabetes at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “If they don’t make a change, then they’ll carry all of these risk factors into adulthood, and that’s like having a ticking time bomb over your head. You don’t necessarily know when it’s going to go off, but it’s likely that it will,” she added.

Dr. Mark Hyman, chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine and founder of The UltraWellness Center as well as bestselling author of “The Blood Sugar Solution,” agrees. “One in three children born today will have diabetes in their lifetime. We are raising the first generation of Americans to live sicker and die younger than their parents. Life expectancy is actually declining for the first time in human history,” he warned.

Even the distinction between prediabetes and diabetes he considers as meaningless. “Prediabetes is not ‘pre’ anything,” he said. “It is a deadly disease driving our biggest killers – heart attacks, strokes, cancer, dementia and more. So if your doctor has diagnosed you with prediabetes or metabolic syndrome, don’t think that you are only at risk for something “in the future,” such as diabetes or heart attack. The problem is happening right know.”

In response to study reports like these, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that children and adolescents undergo regular check-ups of their blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

The good news is that these developments are largely reversible and avoidable in the future through dietary changes and lifestyle improvements. “The big message here is that children and teenagers need more help with following a healthy diet and staying physically active,” said Dr. May.

Obviously parents are the first line of defense when it comes to their children’s health and well-being. But society has a role to play as well – nutrition and health education in all public schools being one of them.

In all likelihood this latest CDC study will be dismissed (like most others) in the public discourse as just another “doomsday” report that can be ignored. In truth, however, an entire generation’s future is at stake. If we continue on the path we are currently on, we are going to become a nation where being sick is normal and good health is the rare exception. It doesn’t have to come to that.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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