Good eating habits learned early prevent later obesity

Q. I keep hearing about childhood obesity. What can I do now to make sure my 5- and 7-year-olds learn healthy eating habits?

A. You've definitely got the timing right: Now is the time to start. Not only can you establish healthy eating habits, you can also influence the chemistry of your kids' bodies so that they are less likely to get fat as adults.

All the talk about childhood obesity is not just media hype. The number of children who are overweight or obese is increasing at an alarming rate. These kids are at much higher risk for developing serious health problems as adults — high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Not only that: They're even at increased risk for developing “adult” diseases when they're still children. One of my nephews who was obese developed Type 2 diabetes. That condition used to be called “adult onset” diabetes because it typically affected overweight people after they turned 50. When he got sick, my nephew was 12.

Good eating habits will help your kids avoid obesity. Children between the ages of 5 and 10 years typically need between 1,500 and 2,000 calories per day, from a variety of healthy foods. An average day should look like this:

Ÿ Grains (preferably whole grains): 6 servings

Ÿ Vegetables: 2 to 3 servings

Ÿ Fruits: 2 to 3 servings

Ÿ Dairy: 2 servings

Ÿ Meats (mainly poultry and fish), beans, nuts or eggs: 2 servings

Growing young children who are able to eat solid food usually need to eat every two to three hours. In addition to three meals, most children need mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. Be sure to offer healthy snacks:

Ÿ Fresh and dried fruits

Ÿ Vegetables with low-fat dip

Ÿ Yogurt and low-fat milk

Ÿ Whole-grain bread, whole-grain crackers, unsalted whole-wheat pretzels

Ÿ Peanut butter, hummus, bean dip

By age 5, all children should be following the same heart-healthy diet as you. That's right, by age 5. You know the drill:

Ÿ Switch to low-fat or nonfat milk and reduced-fat cheese and yogurt.

Ÿ Limit fried foods.

Ÿ Have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables on hand. Serve them for snacks rather than cookies, chips, ice cream or other high-fat foods.

Ÿ Avoid soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened drinks. They are a major contributor to weight gain.

Regular exercise is no less important than a healthy diet in preventing childhood obesity, and it is also beneficial to a child's overall health. It almost surely reduces the risk for Type 2 diabetes, for example.

Finally, don't forget that you should eat a healthy diet, too. Besides the clear benefits for your own health, you will be setting a good example. The adage “Do as I say, not as I do” holds true. Your child is unlikely to reach for carrot sticks if you're snacking on a bag of chips.

Ÿ Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Go to his website to send questions and get additional information: