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Parents: Together, 'We Can!' help prevent childhood obesity and overweight

Parents and caregivers -- it's time to take action. Overweight and obesity in children is quickly becoming a public health crisis in America.

Over the past 30 years, the number of children ages 2 to 5 and adolescents ages 12 to 19 who are overweight has more than doubled. And among youth ages 6 to 11, the number of children who are overweight has more than tripled. Being overweight is now considered the most common nutrition related problem among American children.

Carrying excess weight as a child is associated with many of the same health risks as being overweight as an adult, such as an increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome and asthma. For example, type 2 diabetes, once considered rare in children, now accounts for 8 percent to 45 percent of new cases. Being overweight as a child may have psychological consequences as well. Overweight children may have lower self-esteem, a poor body image and feel isolated from their peers. Further, because eating and activity patterns are often rooted in childhood, there is an increased likelihood that overweight children will become overweight adults.

In an effort to help children adopt healthier lifestyles and prevent overweight and obesity, the National Institutes of Health has launched a new national public education program called We Can!, or "Ways to Enhance Children's Activity and Nutrition." The program is designed as a one-stop resource for parents and caregivers interested in practical tools to help children 8 to 13 years of age stay at a healthy weight. Tips and fun activities focus on three critical behaviors: improved food choices, increased physical activity and reduced screen time.

Based on recent scientific evidence that suggests teaching parents and their children to make positive lifestyle changes can be effective, We Can! was designed with six behavior-based goals in mind. The We Can! program aims to help parents teach their children to:

  • Eat a sufficient amount of a variety of fruits and vegetables per day;
  • Choose small portions at home and at restaurants;
  • Eat fewer high-fat foods and energy-dense foods that are low in nutrition such as french fries, bacon and doughnuts;
  • Substitute water or fat-free or low-fat milk for sweetened beverages such as soda;
  • Engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week; and
  • Reduce recreational screen time to no more than two hours per day. This compares to the nearly six hours each day the average 8- to 18-year-old spends watching television, videos, DVDs or pre-recorded shows, playing video games and chatting on the Web.

To assist parents with achieving these goals, the We Can! program offers parents a handbook available in both English and Spanish as well as curricula for parents and children offered through community-based sites. In addition, parents and caregivers can receive current health information, advice on maintaining a healthy weight for families and tip sheets on a wide variety of subjects, including choosing foods sensibly, portion control, how to encourage your family to get active and a guide to the number of calories burned during common activities via the We Can! online resource center.

For more information on the We Can! program or to obtain education materials, visit wecan.nhlbi.nih.gov or call toll free 1-866-35-WE CAN (1-866-359-3226).

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