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Setting the stage for a healthy life

  • Martin Mendez, 11, plays basketball in the street outside his house in Santa Rosa, California on Thursday, March 15, 2012. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Shawn Ruiz used to start his day with a sausage, egg and cheese croissant sandwich plus fries at Burger King. Now he eats a bowl of Special K with a cup of milk and maybe a couple of eggs.

"That fills me up," said the Roseland Accelerated Middle School student, who doesn't consider himself on a diet or deprived. Nor does his family doctor, Cheryl Green at Santa Rosa Kaiser Permanente, whose goal for her 13-year-old patient is a life of healthy choices.

"It's not about setting a weight loss goal but a behavior change," said Green, who has made childhood obesity her passion.

Dr. Green didn't say I had to starve myself," said Ruiz. "She just said to watch what I eat, make better choices and get more exercise."

That's one message from health experts trying to reverse the national epidemic of childhood obesity. Show kids what they have to gain — healthy habits — rather than the number of pounds they need to lose.

"I feel very lucky that I'm doing this now because I know when you get older it's tougher," said Ruiz.

Doctors, of course, would prefer to start before 13 to recruit a child to healthy eating.

Ideally it starts before birth, said pediatrician Mark Sloan, also with Kaiser, who said the first thing a parent can do to prevent overweight children is to keep a healthy pre-pregnancy weight. Then comes breastfeeding, he said, "the second most important obesity prevention measure," because not only is it the "perfect food for infants, it also helps parents to not over-feed their infants."

Pediatricians, he said, are now starting to emphasize obesity prevention at the first well-baby visit and then keep the message going through high school graduation.

Sometimes a child's growing girth can go unnoticed, especially in our giant soda, fast-food, screen-obsessed culture. Parents don't see it on their kids because they don't look that different from other kids, said Green, noting that "43 percent of parents with overweight children think the child is about right. That's because the percent of overweight children has tripled in 30 years."


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