September is recognized as Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and the LSU AgCenter is working to combat the problem of overweight and obese youngsters through programs like Smart Bodies.Denise Holston-West, the Smart Bodies program director, said the program is presented in schools and focuses on healthy eating and exercise and includes instruction and activities promoting physical activity and healthy diets.
“We encourage them to eat healthy and take charge of their health by eating fruits and vegetables,” Holston-West said. “We also get teachers up and moving to serve as role models so children are more active during the day.”
The Smart Bodies program started in 2005 with a grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation. It reaches about 55,000 students annually and has been in more than 700 schools across Louisiana since it began.
Holston-West said the program has a positive effect on children that went through the program.
“We have found that if children were in an at-risk category for being overweight, we didn’t see them move up to being overweight or obese. And that’s what we want children to do,” she said. “We don’t want them to diet or lose a lot of weight because they are growing. We want them to maintain and grow into their bodies.”
This education is needed in Louisiana where more than 30 percent of the state’s children are obese.
“We’re located in the South, and the southern states traditionally have a higher obesity rate. One of the reasons is because of our high poverty levels,” she said.
According to Holston-West, families in lower-income households tend to buy fewer nutrient-dense foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. But they buy more foods that don’t perish easily but tend to be higher in fat and sodium.
Louisiana cooking also is traditionally high in fat, sodium and calories, adding to the obesity problem, she said.
Holston-West said parents should involve children in the whole process of healthy eating, whether it’s shopping, food preparation or gardening.
“Research has found if children play an active role in this task, they’re more likely to take an interest in the foods and therefore consume healthy foods,” she said.
Developing a routine of healthy eating will help children as they grow older, Hoslton-West said, adding that food preferences and healthy behaviors that are established early in childhood tend to track into adulthood.
Getting an adequate amount of physical activity can help youngsters maintain a healthy weight. Anne Kean also works with the Smart Bodies program and says families should make it a priority to be active together.
“Being physically active as a family may not only help your family become healthier but also may make you more unified and happier,” she said.
Physical activity guidelines differ for adults and children, but both groups can benefit from playing sports together, taking walks or doing chores.
Kean said this can help foster a good relationship between parents and children, she added, “it is also beneficial in that members of the family can be encouraging and motivating.”
If a child is overweight, parents shouldn’t single them out, Holston-West said.
“It is important for the whole family to take an active role in being healthy because you don’t want your child to think there is something wrong with them,” explained Holston-West.Tobie Blanchard
The LSU AgCenter is one of 11 institutions of higher education in the Louisiana State University System. Headquartered in Baton Rouge, it provides educational services in every parish and conducts research that contributes to the economic development of the state. The LSU AgCenter does not grant degrees nor benefit from tuition increases. The LSU AgCenter plays an integral role in supporting agricultural industries, protecting the environment, and improving the quality of life through its 4-H youth, family and community programs.
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