With 15 percent of American children tipping the scales into the overweight zone, experts point to three main culprits: fast food, inactivity and stressed-out parents who have weight problems of their own.
"This may be the first generation of kids that has a life span shorter than that of their parents," said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, an associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y. There are numerous health issues related to childhood obesity, such as Type 2 diabetes, and even heart disease.
Yet there are solutions to the problems that cause childhood obesity. Here are tips from pediatric doctors, nutritionists, professors and researchers from around the country.
1. Get Rid of Fast Food and Fatty Snacks
Children's diets are low on fruits, vegetables and dairy, yet high on snack foods with no nutritional value. The simple way to decrease the likelihood of child obesity: keep unhealthy snacks out of your cupboard, and teach kids the building blocks of a healthy diet, nutrition experts say.
Make fresh fruit and lowfat yogurt the staple snack foods as your child grows up, and the lessons will stick as they get older, said Dr. Howard Eisenson, a program director at Duke University's Diet and Fitness Center.
Help your child write up an after-school snack menu plan with fruit and vegetables, lowfat cheese, baked chips and pretzels, rice cakes, reduced-fat crackers and cut-up vegetables on the list of snacks to combat before-dinner hunger pangs, said Eileen Paul, a dietitian with Group Health Cooperative in Seattle.
Try limiting your kids' after-school spending money so that children won't have the means to impulsively buy junk food, and teach them about healthy lifestyle benefits so they won't want to, said Julie N. Germann, a psychologist and program coordinator at the FitMatters Weight Control Program at LaRabida Children's Hospital in Chicago.
2. Skip the Soda
Instead of water, children are drinking more soda, juice with added sugars and sports drinks — all high in calories, but low on the ability to alleviate hunger. Replace the empty-calorie beverage with skim or 1 percent milk, a small 8-ounce glass of juice, then lots of water, said Mary Martha Smoak, a dietitian and diabetes educator at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.
If a child must drink soda, choose diet, and if they want juice, try Crystal Light as a lower-calorie option, or fruit itself, which contains fiber and slows the absorption of sugar into the body, said Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California in San Francisco. Though it contains fat, milk is satiating and a good choice, he said.
3. Get Out Your Cooking Utensils
Many experts cite the decline of sit-down family meals as one of the factors that can lead to weight gain in children.
"Meals should be scheduled, eaten together and not in front of the TV,"said Dr. Sandra G. Hassink, director of the Weight Management Clinic at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.
About 34 percent of Americans' total diet consists of restaurant food, fast food and snacks, nearly double what it was 25 years ago, Eisenson said. Not only are restaurant portions huger than ever, the food tends to be high in calories, sugar and salt, but low in valuable nutrients such as vitamins, fiber, and calcium, experts say.