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Can You Disease-Proof Your Child? 37676

When raising kids, many parents may feel it's hard enough to feed them in a way that helps them meet their needs for growth and development, let alone prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related diseases. But it's so essential for parents to think big picture—and think prevention—when raising their kids. Although studies suggest that being overweight or obese, or having a disease or condition such as type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure as a child increases the risk of growing into an adult with a similar weight or health status, there are things we can do to turn the tide and help kids—and ourselves—do better.

If you want to know why it's worth the effort—and what you can do—to protect yourselves and your children from the growing epidemics of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other health conditions, there are few who are better to call on than David L. Katz, MD. An expert in chronic disease prevention and weight management, Dr. Katz is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, and the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Childhood Obesity. He's also the co-author, with Stacey Colino, of the new book, Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

EZ: Why is it essential to have a family approach—rather than an individual one—to eat better?

DK: The whole focus of Disease-Proof is on families. The advice for losing weight and finding health works just fine if you are on your own, but let's face it—most people aren't. Overwhelmingly, the people who go on diets or attempt to get healthy every year have families. When we leave families out of our effort to get to health, we ignore a very relevant adage: in unity, there is strength. That strength is apt to be the difference between success and failure. Besides, it simply isn't responsible to go on some 'diet' to improve your own health, and leave your family behind. Your family needs you, and you need them.

EZ: What are your tips to help parents help their kids move towards healthful eating?

DK: With young kids, it's pretty easy to just 'be the parent.' You make the decisions, and they need to come along. It's hard for them to go too far wrong when you set a good example. To help parents feed their kids in a more healthful way, I recommend having only 'good' food options in the house. There are 'good' options in every category—including cookies and chips. If all your kids ever get at home are 'good' options, they don't just come to accept them—they come to prefer them.

It's also important to give kids' taste buds time to acclimate. Many kids reject new foods because they are new and unfamiliar. Keep reintroducing healthful foods you want to be part of their diets, and little by little, they will accept them. It may take multiple tries, but consistency always wins out in the end.

EZ: Is it ever too late for parents—especially those with older children—to revamp their family's eating habits? What would you say to a parent who wants to help their older children who has ingrained eating habits to help them gradually shift those habits without creating a battlefield? 

DK: Tell kids 'why' it matters. Love is responsibility—for one another. Tell them you need their help to take care of your own health. Tell them you love them, and that there is nothing more important you can give them than the best possible chance for a long, healthy life. It's amazing how far a little candor can take you!

You can also gradually help your kids improve their diet by trading up the options. Older kids will have a lot of foods they already know and love. Promise not to eliminate those foods. Instead, work towards trading them up. Offer better chips, better crackers, better cookies, etc. There are, indeed, better options in every food category. By making some trades, you'll start to see dramatic improvements in overall diet quality. Another easy trade up is to work towards eliminating soda. Water works very well for thirst! Low-fat or nonfat milk are also healthful options. When making these changes, explain to your kids your motives, be prepared to make compromises with them, and commit to steady, incremental progress.

EZ: Nutrition and health experts—myself included—often talk about how vital it is for parents to be role models for their children. What's your advice to for parents who don't know where to start?

DK: You and your kids will get to health together—or probably not at all. 'Do as I say, not as I do' never works. If your kids respect you, they will do as you do. If they don't respect you, they won't. Make sure you and your spouse present a united front and that you both understand that this needs to be a priority. Then walk the walk before talking about it—and it won't just be lip-service.

EZ: Besides diet, fitness and physical activity are so essential to grow healthy kids—and a healthy family—that's less likely to develop debilitating diseases. What are your tips to help parents help their kids stay active and fit?

DK: Have physically active fun as a family. We consider 'normal' the things we do growing up. Make physical activity 'normal' for your kids by finding fun activities to do together often. This can include walking a dog, dancing, or wrestling on the bedroom floor. Being active together is fun—it's good for both of you. And it establishes 'motion' as a normal part of the day.

How do you disease-proof your family?