Family Involvement Key to Helping Children Lose Weight and Keep It Off, Says UB Childhood-Obesity Researcher

Release Date: May 16, 2002

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- There is hope for parents concerned about their children's health in the wake of a recent Center for Disease Control study showing a disturbing increase in childhood obesity and diseases associated with childhood obesity.

Leonard H. Epstein, Ph.D., a leading authority on childhood obesity and professor of pediatrics at the University at Buffalo, offers this practical advice based on his extensive research: "Get the whole family involved in the treatment and prevention of obesity."

"It's the best strategy for the long-term," says Epstein, who's been studying childhood obesity since the late 1970s. "Parents need to be active participants in their child's weight loss."

Epstein's research has shown that obese children achieve the best weight-loss results when the entire family changes the behaviors that are the chief cause of childhood obesity: inactivity and poor eating habits.

According to Epstein, when parents make healthy eating and being more physically active a family priority, they don't treat their overweight children differently than the rest of the family by placing them on diets or exercise programs outside of the regular family routine -- a strategy that typically produces only minimal, short-term results.

"It is very hard to eat healthy and be active if other family members are eating potato chips and ice cream and watching a lot of TV," Epstein says.

"Including all of the family in the behavior-change effort will benefit the health of all family members, even if they are not obese," he adds. "Everyone in the family can benefit from being more active and eating more fruits and vegetables and more low-fat dairy products."

The first step in developing a healthy family lifestyle, according to Epstein, is for parents to examine their own behavior and recognize how it influences their children.

"Children closely model their parents," Epstein says. "It does no good to tell a child, 'You can't sit around the house and eat potato chips, but I can.'"

Epstein also says parents need to take a close look at the family environment. Eating in front of the TV, stocking the house with junk food and making television the focus of family life creates a sedentary environment that is unhealthy.

"Daily walks are a great way to add physical activity to the family lifestyle," Epstein says. "Plus, when you take your child for a walk you're reducing access to TV. That alone can have positive effect on a child's body weight," he adds. "The average child eats 600 calories a day in front of the TV. If you cut that in half, you're eliminating five pounds a year."

Epstein adds that it's important to continuously provide children with positive social support -- not negative reinforcement -- when helping them to lose weight. "Parents don't have to be food police," he says. "It's more effective when they rearrange the environment so that there are only healthy foods available."

Epstein's "Stoplight Diet" is one of the few plans shown to produce long-term success for obese children. The diet teaches children proper nutrition by linking foods to the three signals on a traffic light: low-calorie foods are "green" and can be eaten freely, moderate-calorie foods are "yellow" and can be eaten in moderation, high-calorie foods are "red" and should be eaten rarely.

"It's an easy way for the family to learn how to substitute healthy foods for unhealthy foods," Epstein says. "And it helps children develop healthy food preferences that last a lifetime."

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