Fighting the battle of the bulge in children

November 29, 2001

ST. LOUIS - A parent who encourages a preschool child to clean his plate before leaving the table or before getting dessert may be contributing to a problem that has grown to epidemic proportions in the United States-obesity among preschool children. These controlling feeding practices negatively affect a young child's innate ability to regulate food intake and contribute to the estimated 30 to 50 percent of preschoolers who are overweight or obese.

In an attempt to decrease the incidence of obesity, as well as establish a diet that is protective against cancer, the National Cancer Institute has awarded researchers at Saint Louis University School of Public Health a four-year, $2,406,828 grant to implement "High 5-Kids"-a program the researchers designed to help parents identify normal childhood eating patterns and encourage healthy eating habits among 3 to 5 year olds. High 5 refers to the minimum five daily servings of fruits and vegetables recommended for healthy growth and lower risk of cancer in adulthood.

"Preschool children have a natural ability to know when to eat and what to eat," said Debra Haire-Joshu, Ph.D., professor of behavioral sciences and health education and director of the school's Obesity Prevention Program. "But parents unintentionally eliminate that ability by trying to force children to eat or try new foods. It can take seven to ten times of introducing a new food before a child will incorporate it into his diet. That's perfectly normal, but not widely understood by parents who are concerned that their child is not eating enough."

The School of Public Health will implement High 5-Kids in Missouri's bootheel region with the help of Parents As Teachers (PAT). PAT is a national program that trains and certifies parent educators who provide parents with information on what to expect during each stage of their child's pre-kindergarten development. Parent educators will use the High 5-Kids program to teach parents how to create a healthy eating environment in the home.

"Access to a variety of foods is critical to encouraging the development of positive feeding patterns," said Dr. Haire-Joshu. "It's not enough to have fruit in the fridge. You need it where a hungry child can find it and you want it cut up into pieces that are appropriate for that child."

High 5-Kids also teaches parents about correct serving sizes for preschool-age children.

"Between television commercials and fast-food restaurants pushing their super-sized portions, children and parents no longer seem to know what a normal portion is," said Dr. Haire-Joshu. "For a preschool child, two bites of apple may be an appropriate portion."

Parents will receive personal visits by a parent educator who will provide them with computer-customized storybooks, personalized calendars and support material that will focus on their particular needs. If their child refuses vegetables, for example, parents may be provided with a pro-veggie storybook printed with the child's name and with strategies specific to that child's eating patterns.

"Parents are eager to do the best for their children," said Dr. Haire-Joshu. "The program builds on this and it reaches children at the best time. Eating patterns develop at the preschool age and if we teach them to drink milk over soda and eat peanuts over chips, then we're setting a pattern for life."
-end-


Saint Louis University

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