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Magazine Aug 29, 2008 - 1:37 AM

Back to school - the healthy way

By by Madhu Mathur, MD, MPH, Director, Ambulatory Pediatrics, Stamford Hospital

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Back to school is an extremely exciting and busy time in most homes. It comes with unspoken anxieties and trepidation. In the midst of all this excitement, it is paramount that parents understand the importance of healthy eating particularly in times of stressful change. With careful planning and discussion, children and parents can achieve a smooth transition into the new school year.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that growing industrialization and affluence have brought about an overabundance of food and an increasingly inactive lifestyle. Extra calories cannot be utilized by the bodies of children and consequently, become stored as fat. But that is not the end of it. The fat in the kids growing bodies is not just idly stored; fat cells are similar to “little factories of hormones” that have far-reaching harmful effects. As a nation, one in four children is obese or overweight. 17% of our 6-19 years old are obese and these numbers are growing every year.

With schools about to start, we need to devise simple strategies to keep our children healthy. There is one key underlying concept which parents must understand:


In other words, we need to focus on our children’s energy intake and also create activities so that they get the exercise they need. Remember, healthy children are better able to reach their potentials in the classroom.

Keep in mind that obesity also leads to negative consequences such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, heart disease, stroke and depression. And these are some of the more common complications. These and many more complications cause profound health consequences affecting adult life. A growing number of children are taking drugs for a wide range of chronic conditions related to childhood obesity. While drugs do help manage the complications of obesity, the problem is better addressed by exercise and diet. Management of obesity needs a healthy lifestyle.

Here are some simple tips which will help you and your family achieve a healthier school year!

• Regular breakfast: It’s true, breakfast is the most important meal of the day and skipping it is a poor way to start the day. Our bodies need nutrients to help us wake up and be as efficient as we can be. Also if one does not eat breakfast, then we tend to be extremely hungry by lunchtime and that leads to overeating.
• Healthy lunch: If your child has a school lunch, then investigate the menu and make sure there are nutritious options for your child to eat. If you are a working parent then plan ahead and make lunches the night before.
• Family meal at dinnertime: It is crucial for families to eat together since it allows for free-flowing conversation and gives children the opportunity to share what they learned during the day. Most importantly, the brain needs twenty minutes to realize that the body is full and having a conversation allows more time for this process.
• Healthy snacks: Most children are hungry when they come home from school. Instead of microwavable snacks, try serving milk and fruits. Also, try fruit smoothie with low fat yogurt, carrots, or celery with low fat cheese. If you do not have unhealthy snacks readily available then children will not even miss them.

A handy guideline to set limits and stay healthy is 5-2-1-0 which is:

• 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Most fruits and veggies are low in calories and fat making them a healthy choice anytime. Add fruit to cereal, pancakes and other breakfast foods. Choose seasonal fruits and in order to avoid monotony, try serving different kinds of fruits and fresh produce. Go SLOW on vegetables containing sauces and added fat. A good rule of thumb is that half the dinner plate should have vegetables, and the dessert should be a fruit.
• 2 hours of screen time maximum. Avoid an excess of television or computer games. Watching television or playing video games for a long period of time is addictive and encourages children to snack in an unhealthy manner. This is time that could be spent playing outside. Advertisers spend billions of dollars advertising to children foods and drinks with added sugars which encourages children to try these products. Another reason to limit their screen time.
• 1 hour of moderate physical activity daily. Remember, ENERGY IN = ENERGY OUT. So, in order to balance the food consumed, one must engage in physical activities. Physical activity in today’s busy world is often reduced to gym in school. You need to get involved with your children to create opportunities for safe play on a daily basis. If daily exercise proves difficult, make physical activity the highlight of your weekend. Parents are role models. Try non-formal games like Frisbee or tag if team play is not possible. Also games are not only a physical activity, they are fun too. These activities have other benefits. They teach children to share, to help others not as skilled as themselves and they help families bond. As the saying goes, families that play together stay together.
• 0 or almost none of sweetened beverages or juices. Avoid the consumption of sodas, juices and highly sweetened beverages with empty calories. Instead serve low fat milk or water. Many children and teenagers, especially girls, don’t get enough calcium, which is vital for strong bones, teeth and many body functions. Giving your children skim or low fat milk instead of a sweetened beverage can give their bodies a boost.

As a society, we love children and enjoy spoiling them and more often than not, we tend to reward good behavior with food. Try to avoid “empty calorie” foods and implement good eating habits that will help you and your child have good health

Finally, back to school is a poignant reminder of summer coming to an end but it is also an exciting time for children who are anticipating a new adventure. Make this year the best and give your children the tools necessary to reach their potential starting with their lunch boxes. â– 

Remember that every person is different and you should always consult your health professional for an advice on any subject relating to your health.

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