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Sizing up kids' nutrition and fitness

Sound nutrition and fitness habits developed during childhood have the potential to last a lifetime.

In recent decades, public health authorities have stressed the need to modify children's diets to reduce their risk of chronic diseases. But several experts have labeled the link between children's diets and chronic illness "tenuous" and in need of further study.

According to Rudolph Leibel, M.S., associate professor in the Human Behavior and Metabolism Laboratory at New York's Rockefeller University, the traditional measurements of obesity such as body mass index or skin fold thickness are arbitrary. Such measurements may not be indicative of chronic disease risk because they fail to take into account associated medical consequences, such as high blood pressure or elevated blood cholesterol levels.

Diets for optimal growth

Rather than focusing on chronic disease prevention, Rudolf Kleinman, M.D., chief of the Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital stressed the need for diets that support children's optimal growth and development.

"Because the data linking the composition of children's diets to chronic illnesses later in life are preliminary and incomplete, the primary focus of childhood nutrition should be to provide diets that optimally promote growth and development," he said.

Kleinman, who is also chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) Committee on Nutrition, pointed out how dietary recommendations have changed over the years as scientific understanding has improved. For example, in the 1940s, infants began eating solid foods at six to eight weeks of age; today, solids are usually introduced at six months.

"Recommendations that children's diets should be leaner seem reasonable, but we must keep in mind that undernutrition and hunger are significant and growing problems for American children today, many of whom don't get enough food to sustain proper growth and development," Kleinman said. He added that within the context of a balanced diet no single food should be considered unhealthy regardless of its fat content.

The AAP statement on cholesterol advises that fat in children's diets can be safely limited to approximately 30 per cent of calories. It also cautions that pediatric diets with less than 30 percent of calories from fat can be detrimental to proper growth and development.

Get Up and Go

There is also a relationship between children's physical fitness in relation to weight management and total health.

Some 20 to 30 percent of American youngsters are physically unfit, according to Russell Pate, Ph.D., chairman of the Exercise Science Department at the University of South Carolina.

Surveys indicate only one-third of high school students are physically active on a regular basis. The majority aren't involved in organized sports.

Pate said that physical inactivity has been correlated with other poor health behaviors such as low consumption of fruits and vegetables. Schools could encourage more physical activity by reorganizing the school day and involving athletic role models.

Schools also could improve their efforts in nutrition education, said Barbara Shannon, PhD., R.D professor of nutrition at the Pennsylvania State University. Currently, only nine states mandate nutrition be taught in schools; 21 schools include it as a required topic in other subjects such as health.

Shannon predicted that "If we better prepared educators to teach nutrition, they are likely to be more interested in the topic and devote more time to teaching it."

Teaching Consumer Skills at an early age

Is teaching children how to analyze food advertisements better than banning such ads from children's television programs? "Absolutely," said Arthur Pober, Ed.D., vice president of the Children's Advertising Review Unit, Council of Better Business Bureaus, Inc. Pober, a specialist in early childhood education, said, "Children will be faced with choices in the marketplace their entire lives. In order to empower them to become judicious consumers, we must give them the tools to make choices regarding the advertising message and the product."

Ultimately, children should understand that advertising gives them some, but not all, of the information needed to make informed choices. "The best way to make this point is by example and involving children as young as four years old in decisions about family purchases," Pober advised.

Adapted from Food Insight , IFIC Foundation
from the Winter 1996 issue of Child Caring


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