The evidence couldn’t be more compelling: the large amount of animal fat and calories in the typical North American diet contribute to a host of illnesses in adults, including heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and of course obesity. What’s more, many of these diseases have their roots in childhood. As early as age three, many American children already have fatty deposits in their arteries – the first steps on the road to heart attacks and strokes. By age twelve, 70 percent of children have these early signs of blood vessel disease, and by age 21, virtually all young adults have them. Before long, high blood pressure and other problems start taking their toll. An epidemic of obesity is spreading among U.S. children (indeed, it is world-wide), causing both physical and psychological pain. Severely overweight children are much more likely to develop diabetes and joint problems, for example. They often suffer socially, as well.
Guiding our children toward healthy eating habits isn’t easy. Children are not particularly concerned about the problems that come from unhealthful diets. The foods served at school may not be what you would offer at home. Television and other electronic media give children the wrong message. Just think about the kinds of foods that are advertised to children — they’re mostly not vegetables. Children are bombarded with commercials for sugar-coated cereals and fast foods; they know the jingles even before they can read. It’s no wonder they grow up with the message firmly implanted that junk foods are what they want. (The processed food industry spends something like $12 billion each year marketing its products to children. Some countries have laws against this activity, but in the U.S., when it comes to food there is no limit to what can be told, and sold, to children.)
The link between TV viewing and obesity is very strong: the more TV a child watches, the more likely he is to become obese. Better nutrition is just one of the many good reasons to limit TV viewing. Of course, what we feed our children is only part of the equation; we also have to figure out better ways to build exercise into our lives and our children’s. As a general rule, children pay more attention to what their parents do than to what they say. So, if we want our children to get a healthy start in life and to maintain it by continuing to eat well and stay fit, we have to lead by example.