Amanda Ford of Lexington, Kentucky, has the usual anxieties of any new mom. But since weight problems run in her family, Ford has an additional worry -- childhood obesity. Already her daughters Sarah, 4 months, and Bella, 17 months, are chubbier than most babies their age. "But I don't think there's anything I can do right now because they're so young," says Ford.
That's where she's wrong. Parents can do a lot to get baby on a healthy track -- and it's more important than ever because the rate of childhood obesity in the U.S. is at an all-time high. The number of children who are too heavy has tripled in the past 25 years, raising kids' risk for a range of health problems.
Type 2 diabetes, once a weight-related disease seen only in adults, is now appearing with alarming frequency in children as young as 4. Elevated cholesterol and blood pressure are also showing up earlier. "Today's children may be the first generation in modern American history to live shorter lives than their parents," says Colleen Thompson, a dietitian and coauthor of Overcoming Childhood Obesity (Bull, 2003).
Why are so many kids packing on pounds? For the same reasons adults are: too many calories and too little exercise. "Adults are passing on their unhealthy habits to the next generation," says Thompson. "Childhood obesity is really a family issue. To fix things, the whole family has to change."
Indeed, a recent study of 3,000 kids ages 4 to 24 months found that many of the negative eating patterns plaguing adults are affecting children as early as infancy. Not only was fruit and vegetable consumption low, but french fries were the most popular choice of toddlers. Moreover, 40 percent of 7-month-olds and 60 percent of 1-year-olds had candy or dessert at least once a day.
What's reassuring is that heading off childhood obesity is easier than you may think. While genes play a part in the tendency to put on pounds, diet and lifestyle make a huge difference. The earlier you take preventive steps, the better.