Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Health Crisis in American Families

If you were at a social gathering and saw a teenager grab a beer out of the refrigerator then announce that he was going to take the family car to visit a friend, you'd probably stop that kid cold, hard and fast regardless of whether or not it was your child. Wouldn't you? It's just obvious common sense and the law that no one should drink and drive, especially a teenager. After all, inexperienced teenage drivers have more accidents than do drivers aged 25-50. No matter how much they'll argue otherwise, young people continue to make bad choices and it's our responsibility as adults to guide them.

Why then, do some parents allow their children (of any age) to decide what they will and will not eat, if and when? When given a choice between creamy-sweet vanilla ice cream or broccoli there's little chance the vitamin-packed cruciferous vegetable will be at the top of the list children’s favorite foods. Some parents mistakenly believe that their child is somehow different and will grow out of his or her repugnance of salads. If kids don't try certain foods, they might not know if they even like them. Many children base their meal choice on how foods look. Kids who say "I don't eat potatoes," or "I don't like tomatoes" might not have ever tasted them. We know one child who would only eat Poptarts. No kidding. And the parents were genuinely concerned that if they took the Poptarts away the child would starve. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discover that only eating sugar and chemicals will eventually kill you, but so will not eating, so what’s a parent to do? Starve them until they eat good food? Force them to eat healthy?

Well, yes. My husband, Ted, and I and our children have always lived off the land. We hunt and fish, procuring our own sustenance, never taking more than we need and giving back to Mother Nature ten-fold, planting thousands of trees each year and managing wildlife as a precious renewable resource. We cringe when food is wasted because we know how difficult it was to attain. We enjoy the great variety of tastes and textures that are readily available in organic fruit, meat and vegetables and that is a huge part of our family’s tradition. So when other children visit we encourage them to try new foods, or sometimes just food that they’ve never seen before, like red peppers, squash, sliced avocados, or venison. I'm not sure if other parents don't take the time to share this information with their children because they don't understand it themselves, but too many kids haven't been properly informed about the basics of nutrition, leaving them unarmed in the fight against future life-threatening illnesses. Health and fitness are a critical part of parenting responsibilities.

Currently, children in the United States are the most unhealthy, overweight and disease-ridden kids in history. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, we are in crisis-mode. But how can that be? We have pre-packaged fat-free foods, low-carb foods, diet sodas and every weight-loss program imaginable, including prescriptions and surgery to prevent us from gaining weight, but we do anyway. Americans have an increasing and dangerous dilemma with obesity and diseases associated with being overweight such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. The price for this overwhelming decline of physical fitness costs Americans approximately one hundred and seventeen billion dollars and about four-hundred thousand lives each year.

My interests in a quality, healthy life came from my chubby high school and college years when I was twenty to thirty pounds heavier than I am now. I was involved in every sport imaginable - including track because running burned a lot of calories - and yet I struggled with my weight for years. In my lifetime I’ve gained and lost more than one hundred pounds. Fifteen pounds here, ten pounds there, and thirty-five with the birth of my son. It all adds up. Like many who’ve battled the bulge, I tried every diet imaginable. It wasn’t until I stopped dieting that I lost weight and kept it off. Now, I’ve been able to maintain my svelte, one-hundred-and-five pound frame for twenty years. People constantly make comments about the fact that I seemingly eat whatever I want but stay slim. The pure and simple truth is: I love to eat! The reason I don’t gain weight is because (drum roll please…) I monitor both the quality and quantity of foods I eat and I exercise almost every day. Fortunately, exercising was never a problem for me because I love to workout and I crave that endorphin high after sweating and dancing in an aerobics or Zumba® Fitness class, while running or playing basketball with my son, taking a walk with my husband or just doing yoga. It really doesn’t matter what form of physical activity you use. What’s important is that you incorporate some sort of vigorous physical movement into your schedule at least three times a week, preferably daily.

Like many Americans, I crave carbohydrates, especially sweets, but when I started eating wild game twenty-three years ago my appetite changed. Venison is low in cholesterol and isn’t marbled with fat or loaded with chemicals, hormones or steroids. Gradually, by eating more pure and natural protein, my carbohydrate cravings diminished. I discovered that I had more energy and didn’t struggle with my weight as much as I had in my twenties. As long as wild game was in part of my daily diet, I realized that I could eat almost everything I wanted to and not gain weight. (Go ahead, read that again!)

I avoid chemically processed food, soda pop, rolls and fried food, but, yes, I do have them on occasion. The more that food is cooked or processed, the more valuable digestive enzymes and nutrients are lost. Eating boxed or packaged foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce is like putting bad gasoline in your car. Although you think you’re filling up your tank, eventually the car will have engine problems. This is the same affect junk or processed food has on the human body. I’m a hard-core label reader. I want to know exactly what I’m putting into my sacred temple so I can have the best quality of life for as long as I live. Although I do indulge in occasional sweet treats and especially popcorn at the movies, my food philosophy is: Everything in moderation. When he was younger and living at home, I tried to teach my son and his friends the basics like eating (preferably organic) fresh fruit and vegetables everyday and if a package was on the grocer’s shelf for a year it isn’t good enough. Food was meant to be newly baked, picked or cooked. If we’re going to have a treat I make something fresh myself, like homemade chocolate chip cookies with organic butter, eggs and flour, or fresh fruit dipped in organic melted chocolate. After a reasonable treat, however, I make sure I expend the extra calories through exercise and make myself eat responsibly the next day. Kids listen. Yesterday, the greatest thing just happened: I got a phone call from my son who’s living in Los Angeles, telling me that he’s now using a Vita Mix to make healthy smoothies with carrots, spinach, apples, USANA protein mix and whatever fruit juice and vegetables he has. : )

It might not happen immediately, but when we expose our children to healthy eating, they are more likely to make healthy choices when they are adults. Our children cannot possibly make such important decisions as to how they can best fuel their sportscar-like bodies, but parents must be predominant persuaders. The future health of a nation lies within responsible parenting that can change the current downward spiral of obesity, disease and early death. Many fingers can be pointed at the restaurant industry to provide the public with information on the foods they serve, or the packaging industry to label their products better, but ultimately the accountability rests within every individual and every parent. No matter what new diet program is the current craze, the best one has already been available for thousands of years: Eat less, exercise more. Genetics determine eighty percent of our body types and whether we are prone to certain diseases like chronic headaches and even obesity. With a concerted and conscientious awareness of our eating habits, body types, physical fitness and exercise habits, we can take that twenty percent and make dynamic changes to reverse the crisis that weighs heavy on American families.

Sometimes it does take a village to raise a child. It's customary to allow parents to instill their own rules, including eating habits, but what if we started looking at obesity as the silent killer that it is? The next time you see an overweight child grab a powdered donut, invision that act as if it were a teenager who's about to drink and drive. Of course, it's not comfortable to discipline any someone else's child, but I'd much rather be thought of as an old meanie, than an invited guest to a funeral. Don't laugh. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, one out of three school-age children have had a few too many donuts and are classified as either overweight or obese. But that's not even the bad part. Two out of every three Americans are overweight or obese. These kids are learning bad habits from us.

But it's never too late to correct bad behavior. We've all seen out of control kids running around restaurants and living rooms, screaming at the top of their lungs, craving exercise. A walk/run in the park, swimming, playing basketball or a Zumba® Fitness class would take care of that. You'd probably have a lot of fun doing it together, and it might just save a life.

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