SUNDAY, April 23, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Is your kid junking up on cupcakes at school, grabbing fried chicken fingers for dinner, and spending too much time playing computer games?

You might think there's little you can do at this point to positively influence your school-aged child's health habits. But you'd be sadly mistaken.

"It's never too late to teach about healthy eating and good exercise. That -- regardless of a child's weight -- should be part of the day-to-day practice," said Dr. Sandra Braganza, a social pediatrician at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

The goal doesn't necessarily have to be weight loss, added Braganza, who counsels many overweight children in her pediatrics practice. "The goal can really be to eat healthier and increase your exercise. And those have long-term benefits for a child and the family."

Childhood obesity is at an all-time high in the United States. Currently, 16 percent of children and teens aged 6 to 19 are considered overweight, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

Excess weight puts kids at risk for serious health complications such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. What's more, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, recent studies show that new cases of asthma are 1.5 to two times more likely among overweight children.

It's important to teach healthy behaviors in childhood, says the American Obesity Association, because altering one's health habits becomes more difficult as people age. Families and schools can play a vital role in encouraging good nutrition and physical activity -- behaviors that can help prevent childhood obesity.

In fact, schools, in accordance with a 2004 federal law, must have a "wellness policy" before the start of the 2006-2007 academic year. Any school district that receives U.S. Department of Agriculture funding for school breakfast or lunch programs must establish goals for nutrition education, physical activity and other school activities designed to promote student wellness, the law stipulates. Parents and students also must participate in setting these new policies.

The law gives schools plenty of leeway in establishing policies that reflect their own community's priorities.

"It's local choice, but they've got to address these issues," explained Julia Graham Lear, director of the Center for Health and Health Care in the Schools at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services and the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, in Washington, D.C.

"The first thing parents can do is make sure that their school district or their school is on top of this. If you have elected school boards and you have a school board member, give them a call," she said. "Or give the superintendent's office a call."

Parents can make a difference at home, too. One way is to make healthy eating a family affair, Braganza suggested. For example, don't keep juice in the refrigerator if one child is not allowed to drink it. "That is a very cruel thing to do and a very difficult thing to do for the child who is being prohibited from drinking the juice," she said.

Instead of having cheesy, buttery mashed potatoes on the dinner table, serve up grilled vegetables that everyone can enjoy, she suggested. And don't prepare a separate meal of fried chicken fingers for the kids. Have them eat the same grilled chicken that the adults are eating.

Experts at the Nemours Foundation also recommend:

  • Keeping lots of fruits and vegetables on hand; the goal is five servings a day. Other nutritious snacks include yogurt, peanut butter and celery, and whole-grain crackers and cheese.
  • Serving lean meats and other healthful sources of protein, including eggs and nuts.
  • Limiting fat consumption by avoiding fried foods. Opt, instead, for healthier cooking methods, such as broiling, grilling or roasting.
  • Limiting sugary drinks, such as soda and fruit-flavored drinks. Instead, serve water and milk.

To sneak more exercise into the day without making it a chore, try riding bikes or going to the park as a family, Braganza said. Or set up a weekly date for your child and some friends to go bike riding together.

"Just like an adult, it's easier to exercise when you have a person with you," she noted. "I think children can benefit from a buddy system like that."

More information

For more tips on what kids can do to stay fit, visit the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

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