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Overweight kids a U.S. epidemic

child with spoon
Pleasing a finicky eater may try a parent's patience, but a healthy diet prevents obesity  

October 21, 1999
Web posted at: 8:22 a.m. EDT (1222 GMT)

In this story:

Problems start younger than ever ...

... And the reasons why


ATLANTA (CNN) -- Calling obesity in America an epidemic, especially among children, the nation's dietitians urge parents to take action. Even infants and toddlers are more overweight than ever, experts say.

Just ask Gail Petty.

Obesity runs in her family so the working mother of three is concerned about her children's weight. A few years ago, Petty noticed daughter Nichole wasn't losing her baby fat as doctors has predicted.

 Tips for parents
  • Don't let children fill up on too much juice or milk. A half cup of juice and two cups of skim or lowfat milk are plenty for a 2-year-old.
  • Limit soda, flavored milk and fruit drinks.
  • Offer healthier versions of a child's favorite foods, such as baked rather than fried chicken.
  • Allow some treats so kids don't feel deprived.
  • Don't put a young child on a diet.
  • "She didn't have variety in her diet," Petty told CNN. "It seemed like it was always fried chicken or pizza."

    Turning things around required changing what Nichole ate -- but not putting the girl on a diet.

    Petty was encouraged to add healthier foods to her daughter's diet, and keep doing it, even if the junk food junkie rejected them. "It's amazing," the mother told CNN. "My daughter will now eat more vegetables, more fruits."

    Problems start younger than ever ...

    The weight problem Nichole Petty tackled, with her mother's help, is hardly unique to her family. It's an issue so prevalent throughout the country that the American Dietetic Association plans to review it at its convention this week in Atlanta.

    One out of five American children has a weight problem -- and they're getting that way earlier than ever, according to the association.

    "Evidence shows us that there are more overweight children now and more overweight infants and toddlers than there were 20 or 30 years ago," says dietitian Keith Ayoob.

    Putting that another way, experts say the number of overweight 1 and 2 year-olds in the United States has doubled since the 1970s.

    ... And the reasons why

    Petty and child
    Petty says she is concerned about her children's weight because obesity runs in her family  

    Why is this happening?

    "The answer to that question has to do with what has evolved in our culture in the last 20 to 30 years," says Dr. John Monaco, a Florida pediatrician.

    "We have become a culture that values convenience over solid nutrition. So, we are eating more and more foods that are not real food ... (but) laced with chemicals, preservatives and non-nutritional elements," Monaco told participants in a chat held Monday.

    Lack of physical activity is another reason.

    "Although it is true that kids do spend a lot of time in front of the television, computer and video games, there is also a lot more opportunity for organized sporting activities than ever before," Monaco said.

    "But what kids don't do that they did 20 to 30 years ago, is participate in random play like bike riding, playing tag, and running around the neighborhood without a true structure," he said. "So, really, it's our busy lives that have a lot to do with the problem."

    "What parents should do," advises child nutrition author Susan Roberts, "is change the types of food they keep in the house and give (children) more opportunities for physical activity so children can eat as much as they want and play how they want."

    Correspondent Linda Ciampa contributed to this report, written by Jim Morris

    Chat transcript: Dr. John Monaco on childhood obesity
    October 18, 1999
    Chat transcript: Dr. Pamela Peeke on nutrition, body image and obesity
    October 11, 1999
    When children pump iron
    October 13, 1999
    Is your child overweight?
    September 3, 1999

    Dietary guidance for healthy children (2-11)
    Fitness pyramid for kids
    Mayo Clinic: Childhood obesity
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