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Back-to-School Obesity Prevention Tips

Dr. Caughman Taylor

Survival strategies for school lunches and hectic schedules

How can parents protect their children from the daily temptations of high-fat, high-calorie convenience foods and vending machine fare offered in school cafeterias? “With proper planning and some creativity, even the busiest parents can help their children make healthier choices,” said Dr. Caughman Taylor, senior medical director for Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, about 25 percent of all American children and adolescents are overweight, an alarming 20 percent increase over 10 years ago. Although the problem is a complex one, obesity puts children at an increased risk of high blood pressure, higher cholesterol and blood lipid (fat) levels, and Type II (previously referred to as "adult-onset") diabetes.

Taylor encourages parents to investigate the school lunch menu. “If you know that there is not a healthy lunch available on certain days, you can pack a nutritious lunch ahead of time,” he said. He recommends that parents think about breakfast, lunch and dinner options over the weekend, so that they can have nutritious ingredients handy.

The school may publish a healthy menu, but realistically children could choose to go through an alternative line and purchase more fattening options such as pizza, burgers and fries. “It is important that you talk with your child about healthy eating,” said Dr. Taylor. Children are bombarded with marketing messages and are vulnerable to choosing foods that may contribute to long-term weight-control struggles.

Beverages also can be packed with sugar and calories. “Sodas and juice drinks add hundreds of calories without providing any nutritional value,” said Taylor. He cautioned that many of the juice-type beverages contain high amounts of fructose corn syrup and only minimal amounts of fruit juice.
Taylor recommends:

  • When your child arrives home from school, encourage fun physical activity—such as shooting basketball, bicycle riding or dancing—for the first hour or two, rather than doing homework. Prepare a few nutritious meals over the weekend for busy weeknights, so that you can enjoy a healthy dinner together.
  • Don’t make unhealthy snacks, such as chips and soda available. Instead, have healthy alternatives, such as favorite fruits, vegetables, nuts, low-fat cheese and salsa with low-fat corn chips available at home and for school lunches.
  • Provide small containers of bottled water and low-fat milk to help your child avoid the beverage machines.
  • Schedule time right after dinner for homework and then for household chores. This limits the amount of television viewing and sedentary time.
  • Encourage children to eat a healthy breakfast, for academic reasons as well as for the nutritional benefits.
  • Take an active role in Parent Teacher Organizations. Work to get the soda machines out of the schools and to replace the junk in vending machines with healthier choices.

Dr. R. Caughman Taylor is the senior medical director of Palmetto Health Children's Hospital and is the father of three children. He also is chairman of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics.