(ARA) – The statistics are enough to make you lose your appetite: Obesity rates among children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 19 have tripled over the past 40 years, with up to 30 percent of American school-age children considered either overweight or obese.

“We are raising a generation of children who are at risk for serious illness such as diabetes and heart disease simply from their eating habits,” said Veronica Atkins, chair of the Dr. Robert C. Atkins Foundation and the author of two cookbooks.

Beyond socioeconomic conditions, other important factors are also contributing to this escalating epidemic. Today’s overscheduled lifestyle has led to a decrease in activity and an increase in fast and processed food consumption. Our children are suffering the consequences of this trend. Left unchecked, they will grow up to be the obese – and unwell – adults of tomorrow.

“Food companies are spending $11 billion per year marketing to kids, using popular characters to manipulate food choices, and kids are eating it up,” said Atkins. However, recent studies demonstrate that this power to influence can be channeled in a healthier direction. For example, the Sesame Workshop’s recent “Elmo Broccoli Study,” supported by the Dr. Robert C. Atkins Foundation, concluded that children would chose broccoli over chocolate when the vegetable was labeled with an Elmo sticker, and an unknown character was placed on a chocolate bar.

More recently, another study conducted by the Institute of Medicine reinforced this concept with its recommendation that licensed TV characters should only promote healthy foods. Even Congress has weighed in on the issue, by suggesting the regulation of junk food marketing to children. While Atkins believes that these efforts further emphasize the gravity of this growing epidemic, she stresses that when it comes to anti-junk food options, the ultimate decision-makers have and always will be parents. “The good news is that even though we don’t yet have a cure for obesity, we do know that healthy food choices can help prevent it,” said Atkins. “It’s time that parents step up to the plate and take control over what they and their children are eating. Parents must set the example.”

From brushing teeth and washing hands to looking both ways when crossing the street and not going with strangers, parents strive to instill good habits in their children from an early age. But somehow, what our children eat seems to get away from us. “You wouldn’t allow your 6-year-old to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or engage in other destructive behaviors, because you know it can hurt them in the long run. We should consider unhealthy snacks and meals in the same vein,” said Atkins, who also funds “Life in Action,” a nutritional education program of the Canada-based Free the Children youth empowerment organization.

In the meantime, families can make positive/healthy changes, one meal and one day at a time. In her book Atkins for Life Low-Carb Cookbook, Atkins offers parents these suggestions to jumpstart a healthier diet for their families:

* Less is more. Portion control isn’t an adult concept. Children need limits too.

* Go for color. Colorful food is packed with vitamins and minerals.

* Choose whole foods. The less processed a food is and the closer it is to its natural state, the better.

* Know the difference between a treat and every day. There should be a difference between what your child eats every day and the occasional treat.

* Get moving! Get outside with your children, encourage them to play, exercise and move around. Limit time spent watching television and computer games.

* Keep nutritious snacks at hand. Cut up vegetables, fruit, cheese wedges, nuts (as age appropriate).

* Take a stand. Resist being manipulated by your children’s demands for high-sugar/high-calorie snacks and empty calorie drinks.

* Serve food from all the food groups every day. This includes milk/dairy, fruit/vegetables; whole grains; protein and healthy fats/oils, including nuts.

* Eat a good breakfast and be sure your children do too.

* Pack nutritious lunches. Lunch money is too often used for junk food.

* Stay on a schedule. Keeping meal times regular can keep kids from overloading on snacks.

* Set a good example. If parents take the lead in staying active and eating well, children will follow.

Courtesy of ARA Content

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Atkins Foundation seeks to positively impact disease prevention and health management worldwide by supporting independent nutritional research and educational programs. Established with a $40 million endowment in August 2003, the Foundation, which is managed by National Philanthropic Trust, provides grants to support scientific, evidence-based and clinical research that examines the role of metabolism and nutrition in obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease and other major health issues confronting our society today.

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