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A Weighty Matter
Childhood obesity is on the rise. Here is how to win the food fight in your home.

by Pam George
Childhood obesity is on the rise. Here is how to win the food fight in your home.

When Mary Cates was 6 years old, her doctor expressed concern about her weight. Mary, who’d been an average-sized baby, had gained 10 pounds in one year. Her parents had divorced during that year, and Mary was spending about three weekends a month with her father. “I wasn’t controlling the shopping list or her diet when she was there,” says her mother, Crystal Cates of Mount Laurel.

Today, 9-year-old Mary is 97 pounds. Her doctor wants to keep her under 100 pounds for the rest of the year.

Childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years, creating an increased risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and other conditions. The surge prompted First Lady Michelle Obama to launch her Let’s Move! initiative, which promotes healthy eating and exercise. The website ( offers information to help parents and schools make healthy choices.

When it comes to preventing and addressing childhood weight gain, parents are on the frontline, and it is never too early or too late to take steps to prevent or reverse the problem.

Reality Check
You might notice that your child’s clothes are tight in the waist, chest and rear. Some parents might attribute the tightness to a growth spurt or baby fat. “Telling if a child is truly overweight is very difficult,” says Heather Sylvester, a nutrition specialist for Kennedy Health System’s Kids in Training, a weight-counseling program in Voorhees.

Your pediatrician can compare your child’s individual weight and height to a growth chart to determine if the child is creeping into a danger zone. The doctor will use the child’s body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat based on height and weight.

Too often, one or both parents are overweight, which can cause them to minimize the issue. “What’s become the new normal is a little frightening,” says Charlotte Genetta, an outpatient dietician and diabetes educator for Virtua Health in Voorhees. The mother of a 5’6” 15-year-old thought her 245-pound son was only a “little overweight.” In reality, he was about 100 pounds overweight, Genetta says.

Don’t ignore information from the doctor or even the school. The Mount Laurel School District periodically sends home students’ BMI scores.

Finding the Root of the Problem
Since a medical or emotional condition could spark a weight gain, see the pediatrician before making lifestyle changes.

When Sheila Miller’s son was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome at age 9, he took medications that blocked his ability to feel full. “He would eat and eat and eat until he vomited,” recalls Miller, curriculum supervisor for science, health and physical education with the Mount Laurel School District. “He gained weight very quickly.”

Crystal Cates feels that her daughter started eating more in part because she and her husband were going through a divorce. “People tend to eat when they are stressed or moderately depressed,” says Dr. Victoria Handfield, a psychologist with a Burlington practice.

A history of physical or sexual abuse might trigger the need to overeat. “The excess weight feels like a protection, and it keeps others away,” Handfield explains.

Most cases, however, stem from eating too much and exercising too little. Consider the overweight girl who regularly comes to My Gym Children’s Fitness & Party Center in Cherry Hill with a Big Gulp soda. “What her parents are giving her before she walks in the door has more calories than she’ll burn off in the class,” says owner Harvey Howard. A 44-ounce movie theater soda packs 550 calories.

The Right Approach
•No matter the child’s age, avoid critical comments about the child’s weight, motivation or eating habits. “The child will eat more in response to the criticisms, overt or implied, and this overeating is a rebellion,” Handfield says. Crystal Cates never mentioned the word “diet” to Mary. “I did not want her to get a complex.” Instead of telling her son he couldn’t eat, Sheila Miller filled the house with healthy alternatives. “I got the sugar out of the house, a lot of the processed foods,” says the Mount Laurel mom. “I never said, ‘No,’ but I would suggest a piece of fruit or a low-fat snack.”

•Parents, set the example. “My kids grew up eating brown rice because that’s what I ate every night,” Harvey says. “Kids will eat sweet bell peppers and sliced apples and oranges because that’s what you eat.” Healthy choices rarely involve meals or meal starters that come in a box or a bag. If the list of ingredients is long, the item is likely not good for you, Genetta says.

•Make the quest to find the child’s healthy weight a family affair. “Don’t single out the child and put only one on a diet. Serve everyone the same thing,” Sylvester says.

•Practice portion control. Cates places a serving size of pretzels on a plate, which Mary takes to the table to eat. Realize that an adult portion does not work for children. “If the amount on their plate is the same as yours, it’s too much,” Sylvester says.

•Make eating fun. Growing vegetables and making healthy muffins from scratch get children involved in good-for-you foods. “Even if everything takes twice as long, you know they will eat it because they’re invested in it,” Genetta says.

•Limit “screen” time with TV and computers.

•Throughout the process, think positively. “It’s definitely hard,” says Miller, whose son is now 21. “My message is that it can be done. You can find success with lifestyle changes.”

Some of the names have been changed to protect privacy.

Get Moving!

Since a healthy weight is the tradeoff between calories imbibed and calories burned, exercise is crucial. It needn’t be a chore. At BounceU in Cherry Hill, children think they are playing games rather than exercising. BounceU offers obstacles courses, a climbing wall and an inflatable trampoline-like apparatus. “There’s a line at the water fountain after 20 minutes,” says BounceU owner Kevin Dougherty.

Carol Lynch, a physical education teacher at Fleetwood Elementary School in Mount Laurel, organizes hula-hoop and jump rope contests. In the Mount Laurel school’s Recess Runners program, students accumulate miles—either jogging or walking—to win certificates and T-shirts.

Make exercise a family activity. The Miller family of Mount Laurel bikes together. Exercise needn’t involve a sport. Take walks on park trails, and try to find five different kinds of leaves, Howard says. Walk across the parking lot rather than find a space near the store door.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family, Volume 1, Issue 4 (June, 2010).
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