F as in FAT

That’s the title of a new report published by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The findings are downright depressing, screaming loud and clear that we are losing the fight against the rising tide of obesity.

The health facts about our kids are the most glaring and the most tragic:

* More than 1/3 of youth from 10 – 17 are overweight or obese.

* 84% of parents believe their children are of healthy weight.

* This generation is the first ever at risk of living sicker and dying younger than their parents.

* Youth obesity rates may threaten US national security, as more than 1/4 of our young people will be too unhealthy to be eligible for the armed forces.

Did you hear that?? The obesity epidemic is on track to threaten our country’s national security. If that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice, nothing will.

While 80 percent of Americans recognize that childhood obesity is a critical and rapidly growing challenge for the country, and 50 percent believe childhood obesity is such an important issue that we need to take government action to prevent it immediately, more than 12 million children and teens are obese, and that number is rising every day.

I won’t recite the adult figures here, but they’re even worse, and they echo the truth that we already know: Fat moms and dads raise fat kids. But in spite of the dire nature of the news, there are glimmers of hope (I would never leave you feeling hopeless).

Here’s one that’s sure to impress.

10-year-old Marshall Reid weighs 162 pounds — enough to put him in the obese category — but he’s determined to do something about it.

Inspired by the movie, “Super Size Me”, the 2004 documentary that tells the story of Morgan Spurlock and his month-long diet of super sized McDonald’s meals, Marshall and his sister have decided to do the opposite and eat only healthy food for 31 consecutive days this summer. He calls the project “Portion Size Me”, and cnnhealth.com plans to follow along.

How great is that? This 5th grader is taking control of his life and his health. He’s owning it as he lists the grams of sodium, calories and fat in his food in homemade videos that will be posted on youtube.  He reads nutrition labels and explains that avocados and sweet potatoes are good and good for you. He’s a role model for overweight and normal weight kids everywhere. Go Marshall!

So that got me thinking. While there’s no doubt that it’s our responsibility as adults to provide healthy food and activity for our children, isn’t it even more effective if we help them find the tools and motivation to make changes themselves? Let’s come up with creative ways to trade the power struggle for empowerment and encourage them to choose health, like Marshall did. Even the youngest kiddos love a contest, so try a few of these …

* Help your kids plant an indoor or outdoor garden. Start with seeds or small plants and chart the growth by day or week. Lettuce, tomatoes, squash, even strawberry plants will grow well in pots. Make sure the little guys are responsible for watering and care.

* Host healthy recipe cook-offs for your kids and their friends. Assemble a number of nutritious, yummy ingredients and let them create delicious combinations. Set a time limit and have a panel of judges declare the winner.

* Make the supermarket fun. While you’re slogging through your grocery list, send the kids off on a food label scavenger hunt. They might search for breakfast cereals with less than 8 g. of sugar per serving or snack items with no preservatives (good luck with that). Make it a competition complete with prizes, if possible.

* Set them loose in the pantry. If you’re anything like me, there’s stuff in there that you haven’t seen in months (years?). They can organize piles on the kitchen counter divided into categories — healthy, so-so, and not-fit-for-human-consumption. Kids love to call us out on our mistakes, so if they find those Twizzlers you hid in the back corner, all the better. Let them decide what to keep and what to toss, then reorganize and replace it. Now that’s value added!

* Start a group project. Have the neighborhood kids keep a family food diary for several days. Write down everything eaten throughout the day and compare lists at the end. I guarantee that having your neighbors inspecting your meals will have an impact on what you choose to serve.

The general idea is to turn the tables. Instead of saying “no, you can’t”, you’re saying “try this game, it’s fun”. I bet you’ll find yourself getting caught up in the competition, too. Before you know it, little by little, old habits start shifting and new ones take root.

Give it a try. Their lives depend on it, and ours just might too.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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