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Parents Hold the Key to Children's Fitness Success

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In talking with experts, some common themes for helping children with unhealthy eating habits that could lead to weight problems rise to the top.

Here's what a few nutritionists recommend:

  • Eat meals together as a family so you can control how much and what your kids eat, and don't allow kids to eat food between meals or snack times.
  • Focus on fitness as a family to make it more of a habit and to make it more enjoyable.
  • Shop wisely; if you don't want your child to eat it, don't bring it in the house.
  • Teach children to eat slowly, savor the food, and listen to the body's hunger and fullness cues.
  • Plan regular meals. If children get too hungry, they may overeat.
  • Don't force a child to clean his plate.

For all the suggestions, though, one theme dominates: parental involvement. "People often blame [obesity] on externals instead of looking at what's going on in the family. Why is that kid allowed to watch so much TV or play on the computer so much? Why is the food so important, why does this kid have such a drive to overeat?" asks Diana Koenning, MPH, RD, a wellness nutritionist at Healthworks in Raleigh, N.C.

Koenning works with a program called Shapedown that was developed years ago at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco by a team of physicians, exercise and mental health specialists, and dieticians. The program is designed to help obese kids, but it puts just as much focus on the kids' parents.

Family structure can be "all-important, depending upon the age of the child," Koenning tells WebMD. "Kids focus on immediate gratification, mid to older teens can tackle the problem fairly successfully if they have good motivation. Younger than that -- without the parents making changes, it's very difficult to impossible for things to change for the child."

Debbie Beasley of Raleigh, N.C., agrees. Her son, Chris, is 12 years old. He's 5'4" and used to weight 245 pounds. Though not uncommon, his case is more extreme than many kids. Beasley describes her son as "one of those kids who likes to sit in front of a TV with a video game controller in his hand." His size impeded his activity, she says, and Chris would sometimes get picked on by kids on the school bus. Upon the advice of a pediatrician, Chris and his family enrolled in the Shapedown program, which works with families to regulate eating habits depending upon the severity of the weight problem.

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