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Healthy 'tween' habits key healthier adult weights

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

American girls who are overweight in their "tween" years -- between 9 and 12 years old -- are 10 times more likely to grow into overweight adults, says a recent Journal of Pediatrics report. Experts say good family nutrition habits and plenty of exercise are keys to helping these girls stay healthy.

"The best way is to adopt family nutrition and physical activity habits that promote healthy food choices," said Connie Crawley, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension food and nutrition specialist.

The new U.S. Dietary Guidelines say children and youths need at least one hour per day of physical activity. "That doesn't necessarily mean a solid hour of formal exercise," said Crawley, who is also a professor in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

It could be "a combination of sports, play and just increased activity, like biking or walking," she said "Any activity is better than always sitting in front of the TV or computer or riding in cars."

Healthy habit modeling by parents, Crawley said, is vital, too. "Parents' attitudes are paramount for younger children," she said.

"A big no-no is for female family members to say negative things about their own bodies or the bodies of others," she said. "This just makes the body be seen as an enemy to overcome instead of a wonderful entity that has all these capabilities."

The goal is to make sure a girl's looks aren't the primary criteria for her self worth. "It's important to honestly compliment her other gifts," Crawley said. "Poor self-esteem is a primary cause of over- and undereating."

Determining a healthy weight can be tricky. Crawley recommends having a pediatrician chart the girl's growth pattern. This compares her growth to a standard set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Ideally, she should be between the 25th and 85th percentiles for her body mass index," she said. A less formal healthy weight goal is the girl's weight when she's regularly eating a healthy diet with regular physical activity.

"Most people can look at their children and decide if they're carrying too much weight," she said.

Weight loss isn't the answer, though, unless she's morbidly overweight. "Ideally, girls will stabilize their weight gain for a while and grow into it by changing to healthier eating and activity habits," she said.

If more exercise and healthier eating isn't working for your child, consult a registered and licensed dietitian at a local hospital or clinic. Before you try to help her manage her weight, it's wise to talk to a nutritionist. Eating too few calories can slow growth and hamper school performance.

Make sure your child is getting a healthy diet without sacrificing needed protein, calcium and other nutrients. Crawley suggests serving low fat and nonfat dairy foods, more cooked dried beans and peas, skinless poultry and fish (not fried), and leaner cuts of red meat.

"Eat the least processed foods possible, as fresh as possible and only when you're truly hungry, not just because it's there or tastes good or it's time for a meal or snack," she said.

"Not having healthier food choices available at home, school and when eating out is a big challenge for young girls," Crawley said. "Along with wanting to eat what all their friends eat, they often have the 'dieting' mentality that starts very early in this country and makes eating feast or famine."

Other obstacles to healthy tweens, she said, are eating while watching TV and other sedentary activities and linking any social event with food.

While doing their best to model healthy habits, she said, parents "need to keep an eye out for the signs of eating disorders. They're usually the last to know or recognize this problem."

For good tips on healthy eating, Crawley recommends the new MyPyramid Web site (www.mypyramid.gov).

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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