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By Minal Jain, PT, DSc, PCS

Eat your Vegetables! Raising Healthy Children

In the September 2008 issue of ABCDlady, Preyanka Makadia introduced you to a number of fun ways to incorporate exercise into your daily life. It is equally important to ensure your children maintain healthy lifestyles. Encouraging healthy eating and activity during childhood are fundamental to nurturing healthy adolescents and adults.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the rates of obesity in children aged two to five years have doubled in the last three decades and tripled in children aged six through eleven years. A child over two years of age is considered overweight if his or her Body Mass Index (BMI), a relationship of height and weight, is greater than 85 percent for his or her age and gender. If a child’s BMI is greater than 95 percent for his or her age and gender, he or she is considered obese.

The likelihood of developing serious medical complications, such as Type 2 Diabetes, Hypertension and Heart Disease is much greater in children with higher BMIs. Orthopedic problems, such as pain and osteoarthritis, are also on the rise. Obese children can not only face physical problems but also psychosocial issues. They may be subject to taunting and bullying from other children, which can lead to self-esteem issues.


There are two reasons that childhood obesity is on the rise: unhealthy eating habits and too little activity. Families seem to be busier than ever and parents are often unable to cook healthy meals. School lunch offerings are generally high in fat and calories. To add to the problem, numerous school districts across the nation have either shortened or eliminated recess and physical education to meet the needs of the No Child Left Behind policy. Daily participation in physical activity has also dropped significantly because greater time is being spent in front of the television or computer. Moreover, due to concerns over child safety, gone are the days when parents allowed their children to ride their bikes around the neighborhood all afternoon.

Use this calculator to calculate your child’s BMI:

Use Nick Jr.’s food charts to help determine portion size and recommended servings for children.

In spite of these trends, parents can help children maintain healthy lifestyles by focusing on proper nutrition and daily activity. To ensure proper nutrition, cut down on your family’s fast food consumption. Include whole grains, vegetables and fruits in your child’s diet. Create a “rainbow” of color on your child’s plate with lots of greens (spinach or green beans), reds (beets or radishes), oranges (carrots) and yellows (squash or corn). Also, keep crudités (bite-sized vegetables) in the fridge for easier and healthier snacking. Reduce the amount of juice you give to your child and substitute it with water or milk. Instead of a juice box, give your child a piece of fruit. You will decrease the calories and increase the fiber intake. Also, learn to recognize portion sizes to limit food and calorie intake.

Going back to a traditional Indian diet goes a long way in reducing fat intake. Conventional Indian fare, such as rotis (grilled flatbread), subzi (vegetables) cooked in very little oil, dal and rice are healthy as well as low in fat and calories. No matter which regional cuisine you enjoy, minimize the fat and oil used when cooking. Include fewer pieces of paneer (farmar’s cheese) in your mutter paneer (peas and farmer’s cheese) or substitute cubes of tofu instead. Reduce the amount of heavy cream in your mother’s dal makhani (lentils cooked with cream) or switch to tandoori chicken (marinated chicken cooked in a clay oven) instead of chicken makhani (chicken simmered in butter sauce). Substitute traditional white basmati rice with brown basmati rice. Use less oil when making dosas (South Indian crepe made with rice and lentils) or switch to uttapams (South Indian pancake made with rice and lentils) instead. Opt for rotis instead of naans (buttered flatbread) or puris (deep fried dough), adding more fiber to your meal. Add vegetables to your dal (lentils) to increase fiber and nutrient intake.

While helping your children learn how to eat more healthily, encourage them to stay active as well. The Surgeon General recommends engaging in physical activity for at least 60 minutes each day. This can be as simple as walking around the neighborhood, playing on the playground or participating in a team sport. Consider enrolling your child in a class, such as swimming, skating or dancing.

Alternately, your child might join a local soccer, t-ball or basketball team. Many classes and teams start for children as young as four years of age. If your child is younger than four, just playing on the playground or dancing is adequate. When was the last time you put on the latest A.R. Rahman CD and danced away the calories? Children have few inhibitions and will enjoy dancing with you. Create a playlist of favorite, fast-paced songs and play it while cooking, cleaning or just hanging out. I suggest songs from Singh is Kinng, Kismet Konnection and Jaane Tu ya Jaane Na. Also, limit television and video-game time. Set the example by turning off the television and joining your children in a game of tag, hide-and-seek or hopscotch.

If your children really like video games, the Nintendo® Wii has many “active” games that require players to get up and move around. Nintendo’s Wii ® Fit has a specific program that will track BMI and daily activity and will work on flexibility, strength, endurance and balance at the same time.

You can help your children maintain healthy lifestyles. By showing them how to eat properly and stay active, you will help your children adopt good habits while they are still young. These habits, when introduced early, will stay with your children through adolescence and adulthood, helping them remain healthy throughout their lives.

To stay motivated, use the practical Eat Smart, Play Hard ™ tracking sheet.

Minal Jain, PT, DSc, PCS, is a pediatric clinical physical therapist. She has over 20 years of experience working with children and families with disabilities. Dr. Jain is currently a senior physical therapist involved in pediatric clinical rehabilitation research at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD. She can be reached at

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect endorsement by the NIH.

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