The statistics on childhood obesity are shocking: One out of every three children is overweight or obese; obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years; and obese children are more than twice as likely to die early from natural causes as children of a normal weight, according to new research from the National Institutes of Health.
There's no doubt obesity is an epidemic in this country, but greater awareness is doing much to combat the problem. Michelle Obama is getting the word out with her newly launched Let's Move campaign that aims to solve the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation.
Making better food choices is at the top of the list of ways to fight back against obesity and keep our nation s children healthy. This month marks National Nutrition Month and National School Breakfast Week (March 8-12), so follow these tips to encourage healthier eating habits among your students and help them see that food is fuel for a healthy body:
Reinforce the message that food is fuel
Andrea Giancoli, spokesperson for the American Dietetics Association and nutrition policy consultant for Los Angeles Unified School District, says lessons about good nutrition should start early in a child's life, because "that's when they're forming their tastes and food preferences." But preferences-and external pressures-change as children grow, so it's important to reinforce the message often. "They might forget it, or give in to advertising on TV or the Internet or what their friends are eating, so it's really important we keep the messages going and going," she says. "That's key to keeping those healthy habits engrained."
Encourage students to make healthy food choices
It's 10 a.m., and an hour and a half before your class breaks for lunch-which means it's also a perfect time to ask your students how hungry they are. Chances are, more than a handful will say they're starving. That's your cue to explain the importance of eating the right foods to fuel their bodies. Encourage students to swap breakfast pastries and sugary cereals with protein, complex carbs, a healthy fat and a piece of fruit. Meals that include all of these elements absorb into the body more slowly and will keep students satisfied and focused longer, according to Giancoli. Winning combinations include whole-grain cereal with milk and berries, whole-grain bread with peanut butter and banana, and a waffle stick, string cheese and an apple.
Giancoli sees a lot of older students making poor choices, particularly at lunch. "I've seen some kids with a bag of Cheetos and a soda, and that's it," she says. "But when they don't eat a healthy lunch, they'll lose focus later in the day."
Giancoli says the formula for breakfast-protein, complex carbs and a little bit of fat-applies to lunch and dinner, as well.
Keep treats at bay
In some schools, classroom parties or even just snack time are becoming an everyday event. It's OK to celebrate even the smallest achievement, but just be mindful of the treats you're serving students, Giancoli says. "We want to teach our kids about moderation, and that means teaching them that any food fits into a healthy diet," she says. But when you start offering those treats every day, that's not moderation.
Giancoli recommends serving fruit salad and cut-up vegetables, or asking parents to bring healthy dishes to classroom celebrations. "It teaches children about moderation and that healthy food can taste good as well and can be part of a celebration," Giancoli says.
Model good behavior
Another way you can encourage students to eat healthier is by demonstrating healthy habits in front of them. What are you eating at lunch and snack time? Do you have a sugary soda on your desk during the day? Giancoli says teachers should be conscious of what they eat in front of their students. "It's amazing how they interpret your action," she says. "They think if you're doing it, it must be OK. Then they'll emulate it, whether it's a good behavior or bad one."
Despite the alarming statistics about childhood obesity, Giancoli is encouraged that America is turning a corner toward better health. "The dialog on childhood obesity just wasn't out there 10 years ago like it is today," she says. "People are becoming more aware of the problem, but we still have a lot more work to do."