Teach healthy eating habits to children

Judy Shepps Battle
   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 15 percent of 6- to 19-year-olds (about 9 million youth) are clinically overweight or obese. Another 15 percent of that age group are considered at risk of becoming overweight.
   And the statistics are not significantly better for preschoolers. The latest figures indicate that over 10 percent of young children between ages 2 and 5 are overweight.
   The physical and emotional consequences of this excessive weight are not only serious, they can be life-threatening.
   For example, as many as 33 to 45 percent of new Type 2 diabetes cases (usually considered an adult-onset disease) are among adolescents. Most teens with this diagnosis are obese, and frequently experience hypertension and breathing difficulties as well.
   But the stress of being stigmatized and teased by peers may be just as damaging to the overweight or obese teen as any physical obstacles.
   A study in the August issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that three of 10 girls in grades 7 to 12 reported being teased about their weight by their peers. One of four boys in this age group gave the same report. These adolescents had lower self-esteem than their peers and showed symptoms of depression. Most tragically, this group was two or three times as likely to contemplate or attempt suicide as their average-weight peers.
   Dr. LuAnne K. Labian, board-certified pediatrician and staff member at the University Medical Center at Princeton in the Department of Pediatrics, is passionate about the need for early intervention with children who are overweight or at risk of becoming obese.
   Dr. Labian has developed a simple and fun nutritional program to help kids learn how to make healthy food choices and develop conscious eating patterns. It’s called the Red Light/Green Light game and is designed to involve the whole family.
   "Green light means ‘go,’" explains Dr. Labian. "Green-light foods include any fruits and vegetables, with the exception of potatoes or corn, which are yellow-light foods. It is always a ‘green light’ to come home from school and pig out on broccoli or carrots, or even peaches, cherries or apples. I’ve never met anyone who became unhealthy or gained too much weight from eating too many fruits and vegetables.
   "Yellow light means ‘slow down.’ Yellow-light foods include those that may be good for you but must be watched in terms of quantity. These are mostly mealtime foods, but need portion control. A child’s portion generally is about the size of a child’s fist. I ask the parents to dish out the proper portion of food on to the child’s plate.
   "Red light means ‘stop!’ I don’t mean that a child can never have a red-light food, but my aim is that he or she stops to think how important eating that cookie or chips or candy really is. If it is important to the child, then the child should portion it by taking half," such as taking one cookie instead of two, or having a single scoop of ice cream instead of two or three.
   Dr. Labian’s special category of "double red-light foods" include items like soda and candy. These foods should be eaten only on special occasions, not every day.
   The Red Light/Green Light game helps children stop to think before eating and encourages them to plan snacks instead of simply eating compulsively.
   Most important, the child is never isolated. "Everyone in the house gets to play this game," says Dr. Labian. "No one, not even skinny people, need more than one or two red-light foods a day because they are not healthy foods." Children enjoy this concept because they can call out "red light!" if they catch Mom or Dad eating a red-light food.
   "If I had my way," Dr. Labian continues, "the schools also would reinforce healthy eating by labeling their cafeteria foods with red, green and yellow labels to help kids make healthy choices."
   Dr. Labian has enjoyed great success with her program.
   "I have one girl in my practice who lost over 10 pounds but, better yet, her parents lost weight, also. As a family they lost over 40 pounds!"
   But Dr. Labian is quick to point out that weight loss is not usually the goal in pediatrics.
   "It is my goal to hold the child’s weight steady, without large weight gains, until his or her height catches up to a healthier proportion. It also is important to remember that each person’s ideal weight is very individual. It may not be what society or beauty dictates, but rather, what is natural and healthy for each body shape."
LuAnne Labian, M.D., F.A.A.P., is board certified and specializes in pediatrics. She is on staff at University Medical Center at Princeton.