Program Helps Kids, Families Make Healthy Food Choices

WARE — Childhood obesity is a significant health problem facing families today. Many parents feel overwhelmed by the problem of overweight and obese children and don’t know where to start.

To address this health issue, the physicians at Baystate Medical Practices – Quabbin Pediatric Practice, Dr. Jeannette Tokarz and Dr. Scott Siege, joined Dr. Kirti Nagpal in developing the Stay Fit Program, an initiative employing fun and effective strategies to help children.

“The Stay Fit Program designed by our physicians is customized to help children and families learn to make healthy food choices, leading to weight loss when necessary,” Nagpal said. “The goal is to reduce the rate of weight gain while allowing for the normal growth and development of a child.

“The Stay Fit Program motivates children to enjoy healthier eating and to include some form of physical activity in their daily routine,” he continued. “Children go through remarkable physical changes, and what they eat becomes a critical aspect of their growth and development. Nutrition and physical activity work together for better health and a feeling of well-being.”

Studies on childhood obesity in America have proven that children who suffer from obesity are at greater risk for health problems later in life. Statistics show that individuals who suffer from obesity at ages 8 and under are at an even greater risk to suffer from severe obesity in adulthood.

The percentage of overweight children in the U.S. is growing at an alarming rate, with one-third of kids now considered overweight or obese. Like adults, overweight youth are at risk for health problems such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, heart disease, sleep apnea, and asthma. There are also psychological effects; obese children are more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image, and depression.

Children interested in enrolling in the Stay Fit Program at Quabbin Pediatrics receive a binder that contains helpful information for the child and their family. They also receive a journal to keep a log of their food intake and physical activity. The children are also given a colorful visual, a dishwasher-safe ‘portion plate’ which has images that give children examples of appropriate food portion sizes.

“Learning and understanding portion control is not about putting children on a diet, but is about teaching children how to lead a healthy lifestyle,” said Nagpal. “The average portion sizes have grown so much over the past 20 years that sometimes our dinner plates hold enough food for two or even three people. The Stay Fit Program teaches children that half of their plate should be fruits and vegetables, one-quarter of their plate whole grains, and the remaining one-quarter lean protein.

“If the children learn about appropriate portion sizes now, they may be more likely to stick to healthy portions into adulthood,” he added.

The program is a part of an effort to keep up with the latest developments in health and to reflect the federal government’s new food-group symbol, MyPlate, which replaces MyPyramid, Nagpal explained. First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the federal government’s new food icon to help consumers think about their food choices by building a healthy plate.

“We also offer children an easy way to learn about which foods are more nutritious and have lower fat and calories by using the GO, SLOW, and WHOA program developed by the National Institute of Health,” Nagpal added.

“GO Foods are lowest in fat and sugar and relatively low in calories. These are nutrient-dense; rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients important to health; and great to eat anytime. They include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts.

“SLOW Foods are higher in fat, added sugar, and calories and should be eaten less often, and WHOA Foods are high in fat and added sugar and high in calories,” Nagpal noted. “It’s important to learn that slow foods are not forbidden. Children are taught that they are to be eaten only once in a while or on special occasions, in small portions.

“The best way to fight or prevent childhood obesity and weight problems is to get the whole family on a healthier track,” he continued. “Making better food choices and becoming more active will benefit everyone, regardless of weight. And with the whole family involved, it will be much easier for your overweight child to make lasting changes.”