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Parents' role key in fighting child obesity

Susan Hedrick checks her pedometer after walking with her daughter, Niki Hedrick, at Brown County High School in Nashville, Ind., June 11. The pair are trying to shed a combined 180 pounds — excess weight they've packed on through a sedentary lifestyle filled with fast food and too much TV.Darron Cummings / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Susan Hedrick and her 18-year-old daughter are turning the tide on years of fast food and sedentary living. In a bid to shed a combined 180 pounds, they have been eating healthier and taking long walks this summer.

And they are doing it together — something health and diet experts believe is a key to combating the nation’s growing obesity epidemic, particularly among kids.

Research suggests healthy-eating, active parents often pass their habits onto their kids, just as sedentary parents do, said Edward Laskowski, co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Laskowski suggests overweight parents serious about making themselves and their kids healthier start by holding a family meeting.

“You’ve got to say, ‘Hey kids, you know we’ve been doing the wrong thing here. Mom and Dad are wrong too, and we’ve got to lose some weight. We don’t want you to make the mistakes we’ve made,”’ he said.

Underestimating child's weight
Family bike rides, walks, hikes or doubles tennis are ways to get the whole family burning calories. And making sure everyone sits down together for a healthy dinnertime meal is another important step, he said.

Since the early 1970s, the percentage of American children and adolescents defined as overweight has more than doubled, to about 15 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Three out of four overweight teenagers remain overweight into adulthood. And with two-thirds of American adults now overweight, they face an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses.

Barbara Dennison, an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Columbia University, said so many children are now overweight or obese that it has changed parents’ frame of reference. She said parents — particularly those who are obese — often do not realize their child is overweight.

Two years ago, in interviews with 1,180 parents of overweight children, Dennison found that only about 25 percent of those parents realized their child had a weight problem.

Her research also found that parents of overweight children treat mealtime differently than parents of healthy children, often allowing the child to choose the meal — typically something less nutritious. Some parents even used sweets to encourage their child to finish a meal.

With America’s youth getting fat on calorie-packed fast foods and snacks and spending too much time in front of the TV or the computer, Dennison said parents need to practice what they preach.

“Parents are children’s best and first role models. You can’t have Mom watching TV for hours and saying, ‘No, Johnny, you can’t watch TV, it’s bad for you,”’ she said.

Betsy A. Keller, an associate professor of exercise and sport sciences at Ithaca College in New York, recently surveyed 130 parents about their children’s weight and lifestyle.

She found that half of the parents of overweight children underestimated their child’s weight status, deeming them at a normal weight. Keller said her study also found that parents misjudge how much exercise their children get.

“I don’t think we’re going to get at this issue of obesity until we ask the hard questions: What are you feeding your kid? What are you putting on the table? Why are you not doing some kind of physical activity with your kids?” she said.

Buddy system
Hedrick, a 39-year-old pediatric nurse who has struggled with her weight since childhood, is trying to do just that because she is determined to make sure Niki does not carry her extra weight into adulthood.

A recent high school graduate, Niki had been thin, like her two brothers, until unhealthy habits she adopted early in high school led to a 50-pound weight gain.

After Hedrick enrolled earlier this year in a diet and exercise program sponsored by the Indianapolis hospital where she works, she showed Niki some information about the program.

At first, the teen was not very interested, but in the past month or so she has been eating healthier, drinking fewer sugary sodas, doing sit-ups and taking long walks — either with her mother or alone.

Niki has shed about 5 pounds from her 5-foot-6 frame and is down to about 170 pounds. She is aiming to lose 40 pounds more. “It’s just for my own personal self,” she said.

Hedrick, who hopes to lose about 130 pounds, believes she and her daughter can use the buddy system to make sure both of them stick to their diet and exercise plans.

“I really don’t see it as dieting,” Hedrick said. “I see it as a life-changing journey to make myself and Niki healthier.”