America's kids are fat. And they're getting fatter ... earlier. According to a recent study published by the American Journal of Public Health, one in three low-income kids is obese -- a number that's obviously troubling pediatricians and nutrition experts. "Obesity is often seen as an adult's problem. But it's just as much of an issue with children, very young children," says registered dietician Jae Berman.
Kids don't just wake up one day obese at age 5 or 8. Some experts say the risk of being obese starts very early in infancy. "Too many parents think baby fat is cute," says Kendra Davis, an 18-year-old high school senior who has battled obesity her entire life. "I was one of the kids whose cheeks you'd like to pinch because they were so round and full. Everyone used to say 'how cute.' Now I have to worry that my life expectancy is drastically cut short because I'm more than 100 pounds overweight."
Recent studies say kids like Davis may have been born with risk factors for obesity. In fact, a recent study from Harvard Medical School published in the journal Pediatrics says there is strong observational proof that a good number of risk factors for obesity exist in the prenatal, infancy and early childhood period, and that parents need to be vigilant about encouraging healthy eating habits to overcome these risks.
To reduce the chances a child's weight balloons out of control, experts say parents shouldn't be swayed by the marketing blitzes for so-called "healthy' foods.
Registered dietician Susan Burke March, MS, RD, LD/N, CDE, author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally, says food that's prepared fast -- not just fast food -- even if it's marketed as healthy, is paving the road to America's kids being overweight and obese. "Parents are busy and want to feed their kids healthy foods. So they see words like 'natural,' 'fresh' and 'low-fat' on packages and think they're giving their kids good food."
In reality, March says many foods made specifically for kids are contributing to the obesity epidemic.
Healthy isn't cheap
Cost is also a factor. For $5, at discount grocer Aldi, you can buy food to feed a family of four a dinner of hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and fruit juice. It'll fill their stomachs. But March says that meal will also fill kid's bodies with fat, calories and excess sodium.
Compare that to a meal of salmon steaks, roasted sweet potatoes, and steamed asparagus for four, which costs an average of $15.
To keep weight in check and still be kind to your budget, March suggests striking a compromise. "Make your own mac and cheese with whole wheat pasta and low-fat cheese," she says. Mix in some grilled chicken and chopped tomatoes and pair with a tossed salad and you've got an affordable meal for the whole family for about $8. "And one that tastes great, too," says March.
Born obese: Are U.S. children doomed to an overweight life?