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Creating healthy habits for children


Everyone from doctors to educators to first lady Michelle Obama seems to be concerned about the nutrition and physical activity children in this country are getting. A recent WRVO community health forum asked a panel of regional experts about what is being done and what should be done to improve the diet and fitness of the children in central and northern New York.

A startling statistic captures why there is such concern across the country about childhood obesity rates.

“These children growing up now will likely not outlive their parents… because of this massive obesity we're seeing,” said Dr. Maritza Alvarado, a pediatrician and director of health services for the Syracuse City School District.

In New York state, approximately 11 percent of children are considered obese -- and an even more kids are classified as overweight.

“The issues that we see are more of what’s commonly called type 2 diabetes. There’s also issues with high cholesterol, and also issues with high blood pressure. And these are all things we’re seeing in 12, 13-year-olds, whereas before we would see these in 40, 50, 60-year-olds,” said Alvarado.

What may surprise some is that many obese children are actually also malnourished, meaning they are not getting the nutrients they need to stay healthy.

Annette Marchbanks, the assistant director of food and nutrition for the Syracuse City School District, says vitamin D, calcium and potassium are among the vitamins and minerals kids are not getting enough of. And, most children should be eating more fruit and vegetables. Marchbanks says it's all about the choices parents and children make.

“Our children are more sedentary than they’ve ever been. We’re selecting foods that may be are more convenient for us, not exactly the best foods for us,” said Marchbanks.

A recent national report card presented to Congress found that only one-quarter of children between the ages of 6 and 15 are meeting the current guideline of 60 minutes of moderate physical activity per day.

Benjamin Steuerwalt, the wellness coordinator and physical education teacher at McKinley Brighton Elementary School in Syracuse. He increased technology is contributing to the rise in obesity.

“You know, when we were growing up, it was, got off the school bus, you did your homework, and you went outside and played, that’s what you did, you played. No one needed to tell us about 60 minutes or an hour to play. Now we see a lot more kids, they get off the bus, they go inside, they put on the TV,” said Stuerwalt.

So the U.S Department of Agriculture has responded to all this by making changes in federal guidelines for the school lunch program, requiring whole grains and limiting calories. While there have been complaints around the country that the new plan doesn't give some really active kids enough calories, Marchbanks says that hasn't been the case in Syracuse. She says the biggest change is the fruit and vegetable requirement.

“Where we used to offer the children a fruit or vegetable, and they didn’t have to take it. Now they have to take it, and that’s great. But we all know that it’s not nutrition until they eat it,” said Marchbanks.

And these experts agree that part of convincing kids to eat fruit and vegetables starts with exposing them to different varieties and making sure they see adults eating this kind of healthy food, too. At Stuerwalt's elementary school there's a program that gives kids a serving of fruit or vegetable every day in the classroom.

“When we first started our fresh fruit and vegetable program, we had teachers, we had parents, we had administrators, even say, you’re going to have a lot of heavy garbage cans, because they’re all just going to throw it away. Basically my response was, this is where we all work together to teach them why this is beneficial,” said Stuerwalt. “And I’ll tell you what, I’ve had very light garbage cans.”

While all schools and parents may not have that kind of success convincing children to eat their green beans, Alvarado says don't give up.

“It’s the power of habit. You just have to keep trying and keep trying and keep trying. And I think things become a habit when you do them over and over and over again,” said Alvarado.

Developing good eating and exercise habits to last a lifetime is the goal of these educators, and what they hope everyone will work towards.

You can hear the complete community forum on childhood nutrition and physical fitness Sunday at 7 p.m. on WRVO. This forum is one of series sponsored by the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.