NEW YORK — Pam Vetter's 15-year-old son balked when she told him she was opting for a healthier holiday season this year: fish rather than turkey, fewer carbs and sweets.
He threatened to purchase a turkey, stuffing, potatoes and pies and put together his own traditional meal.
"It's a moral challenge," said Vetter, 44, of West Hills, Calif. She also has a 14-year-old son. "Do you make part of your family angry for the holiday season by cutting out the carbs and sweets?"
Many parents are trying to figure out how to have a healthier holiday without depriving their kids of Christmas cookies, potato latkes and other treats. About a third of American kids are overweight or obese, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.
Jill Houk, 41, a chef in Chicago, said she is worried her 10-year-old will regain some of the 10 pounds he recently lost. She said her son loves food and tends to overeat unless she's watching him.
He has four sets of grandparents (she and her ex-husband are both remarried) sending him chocolate Santas, cousins with no weight issues whom he'll be hanging out with and a wedding to attend the day after Christmas with an elaborate buffet.
"Of course, we're going to be dining out all the time," she said.
Studies show Americans gain about a pound between Thanksgiving and New Year's; people who are overweight or obese are at risk of gaining five pounds, said Dr. Susan Z. Yanovski, an obesity expert at the National Institutes of Health. She said the weight gain is slight, but it accumulates over time. 10 ways to cut 100 calories
While there is little research on children and holiday pounds, an Ohio State University study found that young children are prone to gain more weight in the summer than the school year when there is more time to snack and zone out in front of the television.
Likewise, during the winter holidays many children are "indulging in their favorite foods and sitting around with nothing to do," said Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, a pediatrician and author of the forthcoming "Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right: The Food Solution That Lets Kids Be Kids."
"Then there's the fact that kids realize it's the holiday season," she said. "`I deserve to indulge. How come everyone else is indulging?' They start to feel resentful and entitled."
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Dr. Goutham Rao, clinical director of the Weight Management and Wellness Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, said some of his patients gain five to seven pounds for that very reason. They see the holidays as a time to unwind and treat themselves.
Some aren't even thinking about their weight, said Dolgoff, promising to get back on track when school starts.
"If they say, `I'm going to start in the new year,' they have given themselves free rein to eat anything and everything in sight," she said. "That's unfortunate. They wind up gaining more."
Children face a greater challenge when it comes to holiday eating than adults, said experts. They have less impulse control — they see tempting sweets and want them without thinking of the consequences, said Rao. Many are unsure which items are healthy and what an appropriate portion size is.
For teens like Shelby Wurst, 15, of York, Neb., the challenge is eating in moderation. She has lost 60 pounds since Sept. 1 at Wellspring Academy of the Carolinas, a weight loss boarding school.
She said her family prepares fattening foods for the holidays; she herself has always been the pastry chef, and everyone looks forward to her creations. She knows Christmas break will be hard — at Halloween, she says, she cheated on her diet and didn't do enough walking.
Tracie Brosius, 46, of Greensburg, Pa., said she tries to keep the goodies in her house to a minimum. Her 17-year-old daughter, Torie Washington, is down 22 pounds since enrolling in Dr. Rao's program 1 1/2 years ago.
She said last Christmas, Torie ate whatever she wanted, especially pizzelles — Italian cookies. This year she is more focused, wanting to slim down for college next year.
"We don't deprive her of anything," said Brosius, who works for an insurance company. "If you are really craving something, you have a little bit of it."
That's a good strategy, according to Dr. Thomas Robinson of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, who warns parents not to be the food police. He suggests parents and kids work together to prepare healthier holiday meals.
Vetter said her son has since calmed down. They went out for a sushi dinner on Thanksgiving — California rolls, Yellowtail, Spanish Mackerel — and he loved it, she said.
"We are still on track for more fish and we don't have the sweet carbs sitting around the house," she said. "Now my son wants sushi for Christmas."
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