Will Your Child Be Fat?

You might not be the best judge of that. Here’s what you need to know about the health risks of obesity and the simple changes all families can make.

Everyone loves a chubby baby. We crow about what a good eater he is and blow raspberry kisses on that Buddha belly. And why not? Babies should have pinchable cheeks and dimpled knees—their main activities are snoozing and slurping down high-fat milk. But when that chubby baby becomes a roly-poly toddler, and then a stocky preschooler, it can make you wonder: When are those double chins just baby fat, and when do they become, well, fat?

That’s a good question to ask, and not just for vanity’s sake. Childhood obesity is reaching epidemic proportions in the United States–the latest studies show that nearly one in five preschoolers is tipping the scales at a dangerously high weight–and the health repercussions of carrying around all those extra pounds are anything but cute. Obese kids have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that approximately one in three kids born in 2000 will develop the disease. Obese kids are also at increased risk for liver disease, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease–illnesses we usually associate with middle-age smokers, not apple-cheeked grade-schoolers– not to mention joint problems from too much pressure on the hips and knees.

No mom or dad would ever wish any of those health problems on their kids, but American parents are probably the world’s worst judges of their children’s weight. A national poll from the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that only 13 percent of parents of obese kids recognize that their children have a problem, and the heavier the parents are, the more likely they are to think their chubby offspring are just right. Of course, all parents view their kids through love’s rose-colored glasses, but there’s more to it than that: “Obesity is getting normalized in our culture,” says Sandra Hassink, M.D., director of the weight management clinic at the DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. “Parents have trouble determining if their child is overweight or obese just by looking.”

That’s why the best way to assess your child’s weight is not by how round his face is or what size T-shirt he wears but by watching the numbers on his growth chart, says Roberta Anding, R.D., a pediatric registered dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital and one of the editors of The Family Guide to Fighting Fat. Focus on the ratio of weight to height, also known as the body mass index (BMI). “If the child’s weight is increasing at a faster rate than his height, that’s a red flag,” Anding says. A BMI above the 85th percentile is considered overweight; above the 95th, obese.

Also think about the kinds of eating and playing habits you want to hand down to your kids. Remember, they’ll inevitably mimic whatever you do–whether it’s planting yourself in front of a Real Housewives marathon or planting a garden in the yard. To get you started, here are some simple but potent changes you can make to keep your entire family at a healthy size:

Watch what they drink
In the past, kids came home from school and had a nice cold glass of milk; today, they’re just as likely to toss back a sugary juice box or soda loaded with empty calories. Instead, offer her water mixed with a dash of 100 percent fruit juice for flavor. And if your child is older than 2, graduate from whole milk to 1 percent to skim.

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