PUBLISHED: 5:48 PM on Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Conquering childhood obesity without going overboard
According to a recent New York Times article, a new report, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, says the prevalence and severity of obesity is so great, especially in children, that it could eventually lead to life spans being shortened by as much as five years.

As an internationally recognized authority on weight issues and eating disorders, Frances Berg, author of Underage and Overweight (Hatherleigh, $24.95), is well aware of the escalating risks.

"Not only are more American youngsters overweight today, but they are more severely overweight than ever before, " she notes. "The sobering statistics for overweight teenagers are of particular concern because the older they are, the more likely it is they will become overweight adults."

But while overweight grows as a serious problem, Berg warns against exaggeration.

"Overemphasizing health risks increases fear, shame, disturbed eating, social discrimination, and size harassment, and this will not help a child lose weight. Fears of a child's being too heavy can cause that child or parents to take drastic action causing injury or stunted growth."

Instead, Berg advocates a "Health at Any Size" approach - focusing on the health and well being of every child, physically, mentally, and socially, regardless of size.

Don't know where to start? Here are some helpful guidelines for promoting healthy eating in the home:

• Get moving - together

Include physical activity in family outings on a regular basis, even if only for short periods.

• Don't tolerate couch potatoes

Limit sedentary activities, such as television or computer time, to 1 to 2 hours a day.

• Model good eating habits

Start early to establish healthy eating practices in the home. Young children are quick learners.

• Snack happy

Plan healthy snacks. Snacks are needed to meet a child's nutritional needs, add variety and satisfy hunger between meals without spoiling a child's appetite. Be wary of continuous snacking, which may lead to overeating.

• Stay positive

Provide praise and positive comments to children that focus on their strengths and do not refer to body size either as a strength or weakness.

• Be flexible

Recognize that a child's body shape will change as he or she grows. A short stocky child at age nine may grow to be tall and lanky.

• Get real

With older children discuss how the media uses unrealistically thin models to sell their products.

FRANCES BERG is an internationally known authority on obesity and disordered eating. She is a licensed nutritionist, family wellness specialist, adjunct professor at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine, and author of 11 books.