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Promoting Healthy Eating

As the number of overweight children in America continues to rise, health officials look for ways to make healthy eating fun.

Matty Seale, 10, didn’t know that potatoes come in different colors, including blue, red, yellow and purple, until the nutrition portion of his fifth grade curriculum. He also did not know so many fruits and vegetables were out there to try.

For the last few months Seale and his peers have learned about healthy eating through Fairfax County Public Schools’ nutrition curriculum. During the health portion of the class, Larry Brickwedde, fifth grade teacher at Union Mill Elementary School in Centreville, has challenged Seale and his peers to learn more about fruits, vegetables and maintaining a healthy diet.

“Certainly, we want to promote healthy eating,” said Brickwedde who has taught at Union Mill for six years. “Fruits and vegetables seem to be the [foods] pushed to the side.”

When Brickwedde began the nutrition curriculum he asked his students to name as many fruits and vegetables as they could. They could only come up with 10. But, after a few weeks of learning about healthy eating, his class can now name roughly 70 fruits and vegetables and provide interesting facts about a majority of them.

“We just want to show them that there is good tasting food out there that is also good for them to eat,” said Brickwedde.

Because the number of overweight children in America has been on the rise in the last few years, programs like Brickwedde’s — where children enjoy learning about healthy foods — are an important step to promoting healthy lifestyles.

“There is a concern that our youth of today may not be the generation that lives longer than their parents,” said Dr. Elizabeth Pivonka, president Produce for Better Health Foundation. Based out of Delaware, Produce for Better Health Foundation, a non-profit agency, campaigns for healthier eating not only in adults, but also in their children.

Because most children eat less than half the amount of fruits and vegetables recommended for a healthy diet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released its second ever food pyramid for children. Made especially for children, the food pyramid not only highlights healthy foods but also promotes physical activity.

“One thing that is solid about the USDA MyPyramid is that it is based on sound science,” said Pivonka. “This is a way of life, this is not a fad diet.”

SIXTEEN PERCENT of children 6 to 19 years old are overweight or obese, a number that has tripled since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, in the last 30 years, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children ages 2 to 5 years old and adolescents 12 to 19 years old. The number of obese children ages 6 to 11 years old has more than tripled in that time, according to the CDC.

Many factors contribute to youth increasingly gaining weight, said Pivonka. These include not enough physical activity in and out of school, too much time spent on the computer or in front of the television, and consuming more high-calorie foods on a regular basis, including fast-food and foods high in sugar.

Nearly one-third of the children in the United States aged 4 to 19 years old eat fast food every day, according to the National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Institutions. This results in approximately six extra pounds per year, per child. Fast food consumption has increased fivefold among children since 1970, according to NACHI.

More people eat out today than they did 30 years ago, and they tend to eat larger portions at meals. Those meals are higher in calories and often do not include any fruits or vegetables.

“For an extra 10 cents you get 300 to 400 extra calories,” joked Pivonka about “super sizes” at today’s fast food chains.

“Half of what you eat during the day should be fruit and vegetables,” she said. “That can come in the form of 100 percent fruit juices, fresh, canned, dry or frozen.”

Eating more fruits and vegetables can help address the lack of potassium and fiber in children’s diets, while also helping to fight the obesity battle, said Pivonka.

Because overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults, the USDA and health organizations are pushing healthy eating education at a young age. If an overweight child has overweight parents, their risk of being overweight or obese as an adult increases to 80 percent, according the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Health risks associated with obesity in children include diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure — which lead to heart disease — stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis. Children who are overweight are also at a greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem, according to the CDC.

Although parents do not have to deprive their children of unhealthy food all the time, things like candy bars, soda and fast food should be permitted in moderation and in small quantities.

To help children take ownership for food decision-making, parents should include them in the food preparation and selection, said Pivonka. This includes letting the children choose the fruit or vegetables for their lunch or dinner. Also, if they do not like the healthier foods at first, many different ways are available to prepare fruits and vegetables so that they appeal to children.

Matty Seale, the fifth grader, learned this during his nutrition course. After choosing the potato and researching its interesting facts, he brought potato salad for his classmates to try during their nutrition fair where various fruits and vegetables were on display.

After going through a few food-tasting stations, sampling everything from star fruit and mango smoothies to chocolate covered strawberries and sweet potatoes, Seale realized maybe fruits and vegetables were not that bad after all.

“A lot of the fruits that you don’t like,” he said, “in actuality they taste pretty good.”