Diet and Exercise Changes a Must for Kids

Diet and Exercise Changes a Must for Kids

Children are gaining weight at alarming rates. Healthier diets and regular exercise are needed to get and keep our kids healthy.

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist, myOptumHealth

More and more children in the U.S. are becoming overweight and obese. They are eating unbalanced meals made up of high-calorie foods and they are not exercising enough. Instead of playing outdoor sports, kids are watching TV or playing computer games.

As a result, an alarming number of children are not only gaining weight, but developing weight-related health problems as young adults, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure

The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that 75 percent to 90 percent of heart disease cases are related to these problems that can start in childhood.

Alarming diet trends
Young people don't usually think about what they're eating and how it might affect their health. These days, kids can easily get their hands on junk food, candy and fried foods. These poor eating habits follow them into adulthood. Recent trends in children's eating habits show:

An increase in

  • Processed foods prepared away from the home
  • The percentage of total calories from snacks
  • Fried and nutrient-poor foods
  • Portion size at each meal
  • Sweetened beverages and other sugary foods
  • Sodium far in excess of recommended levels

A decrease in

  • Eating a regular breakfast
  • Dairy products
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Calcium and potassium

This dietary shift has led to intakes below the recommended values of many important nutrients in the teen years.

American Heart Association guidelines
The latest recommendations for children from the AHA include:

  • Drink fewer sugar-sweetened drinks.
  • Use unsaturated oils (like canola or corn oil) instead of solid fats (like butter or margarine) when cooking.
  • Use the portion sizes listed on labels when serving food.
  • Have vegetables and fruits at every meal.
  • Eat fish at least twice a week.
  • Remove the skin before eating chicken or turkey.
  • Use lean cuts of meat and reduced-fat meat.
  • Limit high-calorie sauces.
  • Eat more whole-grain breads and cereals.
  • Eat more beans and tofu and less meat.
  • Choose high-fiber, low-salt, low-sugar substitutes.
  • Balance dietary calories with physical activity.
  • Engage in physical activity for 60 minutes daily.
  • Limit TV and computer time to less than two hours per day.
  • Use nonfat (skim) or low-fat milk and dairy products daily.

Parents as role models
Children need help deciding which foods to choose, how many calories to take in and how much physical activity they need. Parents also need to play a role in limiting children's time in front of the TV or computer screen and seeing that they spend more time exercising and playing sports.

If the entire family works toward these goals, there is hope for healthier children who will, in turn, become healthier adults.


  • American Heart Association. Dietary recommendations for children and adolescents. Circulation. 2005;112:2061-2075. Accessed: 05/09/2012

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