How to Win the Weight Battle
Tackling obesity the wrong way makes matters worse. Here's a right way
A second program adopted by 7,000 elementary schools nationwide, the Coordinated Approach to Child Health, similarly puts the focus on good health habits instead of weight. In class, students use a traffic-light system to identify "go," "slow," and "whoa" foods and take breaks to do jumping jacks. In the cafeteria, fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk, and whole-grain starches are labeled with green-light tags, and pizza gets a yellow light. Gym activities are designed to keep students constantly moving. "Every kid gets a ball to dribble or a hula hoop; there's no lining up and waiting to take a turn," says Philip Nader, professor of pediatrics emeritus at the University of California-San Diego, who helped develop CATCH. One study found that the program succeeded at preventing the growth in number of overweight students that normally occurs from grade 3 to grade 5. CATCH schools in El Paso, Texas (with one of the highest obesity rates in the nation), held the line between those grades; elsewhere in the city, the share of overweight girls increased from 26 percent to 40 percent and of overweight boys from 39 percent to 49 percent.
Grass-roots efforts can make a difference, too. Hillcrest Elementary School nurse Kim Glielmi implemented a voluntary walking program last year in which 200 students, parents, and teachers put in 1 mile a day around the neighborhood to reach a grand total for the group. "Our goal had been to walk enough miles to get to California by the end of the year," she says, "but we actually got as far as Hawaii." A community garden project in New York City's Harlem section has increased inner-city kids' appreciation of fresh fruits and vegetables. A program to build bike paths and sidewalks in Marin County, Calif., is prompting more kids to transport themselves to school.
At home. Parents, of course, will have the biggest impact. In her book "I'm, Like, So Fat!" Neumark-Sztainer says the most important thing parents can do is to model healthful behaviors—not preach them—by avoiding fad diets, skipped meals, and too much junk food and by hitting the gym and planning active family outings on a regular basis. A slew of studies have shown that teens who regularly eat home-cooked family dinners enjoy healthier weights, higher grades, lower rates of smoking, less depression, and a lower risk of developing an eating disorder.
The home environment should be conducive to good habits: a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter, cut-up vegetables in the fridge, jump-ropes in the garage, a basketball hoop in the driveway. Lake advises introducing healthful foods again and again even if a child refuses to eat them, since research shows it may take 10 to 12 sightings before a picky eater lifts fork to mouth. And he recommends against enforcing a clean-plate rule, pointing out that toddlers up to age 4 naturally and wisely regulate their own intake and that older kids eat out of habit, even if they're feeling full. "Parents should choose when to eat and what to eat, while a child should choose when to stop," says Lake.
Experts also emphasize the importance of fostering a positive body image since, according to the Minnesota data, 46 percent of teenage girls and 26 percent of boys are dissatisfied with the way they look. Parents should both avoid making negative comments about their own bodies and put a stop to any teasing (box, Page 65). They should also discuss healthful behaviors without focusing too much on size or body fat. Liza Miller, a lean and sprightly 10-year-old, shows the level of understanding that parents might wish to achieve. (Her father, Dirk Miller, heads the Emily Program, a private eating disorders organization that runs the Anna Westin House.) She has trained herself to say no at slumber parties to bowls of potato chips and ice cream. And she has made a firm decision not to use celebrities as role models. Witness the sign posted on her bedroom door: "I won't allow people like Nicole Richie to make me feel fat."