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Childhood Obesity: The 64-Calorie Solution

Childhood Obesity: The 64-Calorie Solution

My daughter, who’s 13, has started asking a lot of questions about food. She wanted to know, for example, if the mango smoothies she likes have a lot of calories (and was crestfallen to learn that one bottle is actually two sugar-laden servings), and if the bangers and mash she orders at our local gastropub is healthy (uh, no, honey, the sausage has lots of saturated fat, the potatoes are swimming in butter and there’s nothing green on the plate).

I try to answer Eliza’s questions without sounding judgmental and gently steer her toward healthier choices -- and I try not to look disappointed when she ignores my suggestions or turns down my latest attempt to transform a vegetable into something she’ll swallow. Still, I’m not too worried. Although she eats like a toddler (unlike her younger brothers, who are adventurous veggie lovers), Eliza’s a smart girl. I’m sure her culinary horizons will eventually expand to include the healthy fare that I serve up most nights.

I’m also lucky: Eliza is active, and despite what she puts in her mouth, she weighs a healthy amount -- unlike the nearly one-third of kids in the United States who are overweight or obese, which puts them on a path to a lifetime of potential health problems, from type 2 diabetes that can develop while they’re still young to heart disease as adults.

Should these parents put their kids on a diet?

Most experts say no. Instead, experts like Bethany Thayer of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggest focusing on teaching kids healthy eating habits and helping them become more active.

Here’s some really surprising news: We as a country could lower the incidence of childhood obesity if kids cut an average of just 64 calories per day from their diets according to a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study found that if kids ate 64 fewer calories a day or burned that many extra calories per day by being active, America would reach the goals set by the government for reducing the rates of obesity by 2020.

Now, that magic number 64 is an average. It varies by ethnicity (Caucasian kids would have to cut 46 calories per day; African-Americans, 138), and the numbers could vary from child to child, depending on how overweight he or she is to start with.

Still: 64 calories. I’ve seen other research to support the fact that simply cutting out soda could make a huge dent in the number on the scale (one 12-ounce can of cola alone has 140 calories). Likewise, 15 potato chips have 160 calories. Heck, if I skipped my almost-daily medium skim chai latte I would lop off an impressive 210 calories from my own daily calories!

In fact, maybe I should. The truth is, no matter how many changes parents impose on their kids, it won’t make a difference if we don’t practice what we preach. The best way to get our children to live healthier lives is to show them that we’re doing so ourselves -- by exercising regularly and encouraging them to do the same; by eating as a family as often as busy schedules allow; by tuning in when they ask questions about what’s healthy and what’s not.

The next time Eliza asks about a high-fat item on a menu, perhaps I could offer her more details about why she might want to try something different, or help her find a way to order it that will make it less egregious, rather than simply telling her it’s the “wrong” choice. After all, she’ll be making her own choices for a very long time -- and I want them to be as healthy as possible.

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