Tue, 25 Feb. 2014 - 11:27 a.m. MT
Credit: Jeff Venables
As the American Running Association gears up to launch yet another RUN A MILE DAYS in May, it's a good time to reflect on where we are with childhood obesity in the U.S., and discuss fresh strategies to get kids on the right track to health and fitness. Various exciting initiatives like Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, as well as an overhauled (and renamed) “Presidential Fitness Test” with a new focus on permanent lifestyle change, are trying to take back a generation of children lost to video games, junk food and sedentarism.
Dr. Keith Kantor is a nutritionist and author of the new book The Green Box League of Nutritious Justice, which has been described as a “toolbox of tips and tricks for parents and teachers, an exercise guide, a cookbook, a library of resources on getting the most out of your kitchen and local market, a collection of treats and surprises, and a call to action to make the best choices for your health at any age.”
Dr. Kantor possesses a Master's and PhD in Nutritional Science and a Doctor of Science degree in Naturopathic Medicine, and has been an advocate of natural food and healthy living for 27 years. He recently discussed the book and the philosophies behind it with the ARA. The following are excerpts from that discussion.
After many years to the contrary, childhood obesity in several cities in the U.S. is in decline. Are the numbers misleading though? How concerned do we still need to be?
We need to be very concerned. The numbers aren't really in decline. The increase is in decline. It's sort of like saying, “Our budget is in bounds.” Our budget isn't in bounds—we have less of a deficit than we did before. The growth of childhood obesity did slow a little bit among certain ethnic groups where it was extremely high. So that's a good sign, but it's still a huge problem in the United States.
How do we address economic disparity associated with the statistics of fit vs. overweight children?
I'm a big believer in trying to have a healthy lifestyle together as a family. And if there is less of a family structure for whatever reason, it's harder. To eat healthy, if you don't know exactly what you're doing, can also be more expensive. So if people are having economic troubles they'll tend to go the least expensive route, which unfortunately lots of times is the most unhealthy route.
As a nutritionist, when did you start to expand your thinking to include exercise and diet together under one banner?
I've been in the all-natural food industry since 1994 when I was the CEO of an all-natural food company. And then I started bringing other facets of healthy living into that to make it a more all-encompassing program. A real awakening for me was my daughter at the time was director of training for Lifetime Fitness and I listened to a flip-chart presentation one time, where they try to get people to do personal training at the gyms. These people that are selling fitness said, “I could help you so much with all of these things, but 75 percent of your results are going to come from your diet.” And they don't sell food, they just sell the training part. In a manner of speaking, they just sell the other 25 percent. It hit me that we have to group them together more. And you can't just give people a piece of paper and say do it. You have to make it easy, and for kids you have to make it fun.
Running and walking are extremely important. I'm the lead advocate for PALA+—the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award, plus—and the plus is nutrition. To get the award they have to do 60 minutes of activity a day, or 13,000 steps, and they have to do a new nutritional “good trait” every week. They have to do that for eight weeks and then they get their certificate, which is signed by both a famous basketball player and a famous gymnast.
The concept is to do both nutrition and activity, and I think that's the right approach. It's a lifestyle change; we should be active because we now know that being sedentary is sort of like the new smoking—they say that if you're sedentary for eight hours a day it's the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
Now with kids playing video games and spending time on computers and every other electronic device as their main activities, they are becoming more and more sedentary. Which makes it even more important to eat properly. If you're not eating properly and you're sedentary, you're really in trouble.
Kids are naturally active. What do you think goes wrong and what are some specific ways that we can prevent things from going wrong?
First of all, they took gym out of the schools. I don't know any public schools where gym is a regular class anymore; some of them still have it as an elective. But when I grew up we had gym every single day, and that's nowhere anymore.
And as soon as we got home we ran outside, because your parents weren't worried about you. I don't think kids are really allowed to run outside anymore. Their parents drive them everywhere. Kids don't just get together and play in a park anymore and one reason is parents are scared. Another reason is you have way more families where both parents are working, so they want the kids in the house because they can't watch them.
And that's the real reason I think we have less activity. We're not letting them go out to just play. They can do an organized sport where we know it's supervised and we can take them, but the just-go-out-and-play is pretty much gone in the United States.
To keep the kids from driving the parents crazy or vice versa, it used to be they would watch too much TV. Now instead of just TV it's also electronic games, Facebook, etc. and the kids are literally on it hours a day—that's their activity. They have extremely strong thumb muscles but the rest of them isn't working out enough!
When you mention the fear parents feel for their kids' safety, it sounds like the deterioration of communities is at the heart of this thing.
That's correct and that's why I stress in the book to try to do things together as a family. Another big problem is parents know a little bit more about nutrition and fitness, so they tell their children to do it but they don't do it themselves. This is not one of the education formats that works. If Daddy is overweight and he says don't eat so much chocolate, and he's scarfing down a couple of donuts, the kids don't listen to him. If he says go out and do exercises and he won't do them with you, it doesn't work.
Is a significant amount of your passion on this subject derived from personal experience?
I'm in the Marine Corps Reserve still, so from the time my first child was little, I had a Marine Corps obstacle course in my backyard in California. At seven years old—I had to put some boxes down so she could reach a few of the things, but besides that—my daughter could do the regular, complete Marine Corps obstacle course that I had to do in Quantico, Virginia when I was 21. I made it the regular height, and all the kids in the neighborhood would come by because it was sort of cool. You got to climb a rope, go over bars and all of that. So it was fun and we always did it together as a family—at least until she could beat me and then I didn't want to do it anymore (laughs).
You've hit on two things—one is the togetherness and the other is, it had better be fun.
You have to make it fun. That's why for in The Green Box League of Nutritious Justice I came up with fun names for the hero characters that are the fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. The mean characters are OBCD, as in “obesity,” and you have the Sugar Shark and Salt Snake...there are comic book stories besides having all the real information and exercises and recipes. The League of Nutritious Justice does battle with the Legion of Unhealthy Injustice. In between the information sections we have little comics and activities where they can color and do spelling exercises. They're fun stories where depending on their age parents read to them or they read to their parents.
When it works, you go to the supermarket and your kid goes, “There's Orlando Orange!” and now all of a sudden instead of your kid picking out Lucky Charms or whatever, he's going to fruits and vegetables and naming them and saying, “We need those.” We have to do it in the home, and we have to do it early. If you read recent articles, there's evidence a lot of that is set up before they even go to kindergarten.
It sounds like a supermarket scavenger hunt for healthy foods.
My thought was if they see it, hear it, color it, and spell it maybe they'll learn that an apple is healthier than a cupcake, because we're certainly not teaching that in school.
How much freedom should schools have to decide what snacks and beverages are available to students?
I don't think that matters as much—schools are set up to go where the money is. It's up to the parents to prepare them a healthy lunch. I have plenty of them in the book, and you should get your children involved in it so they sort of take ownership of it. Because no matter how much the schools try, as long as they have choices the kids will pick the unhealthy ones unless they're taught differently. Bring it into school, it's cheaper.
In a sense you're inoculating them from the outside world's negative habits and influences.
Our kids are smart. If we took the time to really explain it to them they would do it. You take them aside and show them images in books or on the computer—don't overdo it, but you can say, “See this stuff here building up in the arteries? That's because of this and this. I don't want that to happen to you. That happened to Grandpa so-and-so, and remember he had to go to the hospital?” They'll really understand it.
Every May, the ARA sponsors RUN A MILE DAYS, a week during which schools and communities across the U.S. organize miler events for children and adults of all ages. What advice do you have for these communities?
Have prizes, make it fun. Make it a festival. Have vendors with healthy foods there to show them off. It all goes hand in hand.
What are some key strategies to deploy in the home?
In general, to get the kids involved you have to get the whole family involved. I don't think children want to be sedentary. I realize we have a literacy problem in the country and it's really important to read and write. But if you can't walk to get a book it doesn't matter.
You can't punish them. Don't tell them they can't play with the electronic games. Instead say, “If you do this, for an hour as a reward you can play with the games.” And you can't just say don't have this sugary junk and added preservatives. Explain that once you have three servings of vegetables and two pieces of fruit today, you can have a piece of something that's not necessarily healthy. This way they can still get it, if they still want it. What we find is they don't want it anymore! You know what? Fruit is real sweet. Watermelon, cantaloupe, oranges and apples are sweet. So we have to cut it up for them. So do it. You know what? There is some stuff we have to do as parents.
Jeff Venables is the editor of Running & FitNews® and a regular contributor to the ARA website and the AMAA Journal.
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