By Timothy Dalton, M.D., North Point Medical Associates and Forsyth Medical Center

There was a time when most of us thought of obesity as just a grownup’s problem. But these days, a growing number of children in the U.S. are considered overweight or obese. In fact, at least one in three kids is carrying around more than just a few extra pounds—and that’s not all they’re carrying. These children are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as low self-esteem, depression and difficulties finding acceptance among their peers. It’s not overstating the problem to call it a national epidemic.

As a physician, this is a tough trend for me to witness. While it can result from pre-existing medical conditions, such as endocrine disorders, very often lifestyle issues are to blame when children become obese. It’s just a fact that we’re living in the digital age, when more and more children live their lives in front of televisions and computers. For many teens, texting and instant messaging account for much of their social activity. That means less time spent doing the things that kept us healthy as kids, like bike riding and shooting hoops.

And unfortunately, these sedentary lifestyles often go hand-in-hand with “fast food diets” that are high in saturated fat, calories, sugar and sodium. Foods like french fries are a staple of many family diets because they are a cheap, easy way to feed the family. But an unhealthy diet combined with lack of exercise hits kids—and their parents—with a double whammy that can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and elevated blood sugar levels. This means an increased risk for heart attack and stroke later in life.

But the health problems can start now. Many obese or overweight children develop Type 2 diabetes, in which the body cannot produce enough insulin or cannot use it properly, causing sugar to build up in the bloodstream instead of being used for energy. Diabetes puts your child at risk for a wide range of illnesses, including heart disease, kidney problems—even blindness. It’s vital that parents deal with the problem of childhood obesity, not just for their children’s well-being now but also to help ensure that they live long, healthy lives.

So how do you get started?

When parents come to me asking how they can help their kids be healthier, the first thing we talk about is lifestyle. I ask questions about the family’s diet, what the kids eat for snacks, how much time they spend outside playing. You might be surprised at how many parents say their children get no exercise at all or eat fast food several times a week. This is a big problem, but fortunately there’s a simple way to solve it. Just think “5-2-1-0.”

The 5-2-1-0 Challenge, developed by the Maine Youth Overweight Collaborative, is all about eating healthy, getting active and eliminating those habits that keep you and your child from maintaining a healthy weight. Here’s how it works:

• Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, but limit how much 100-percent fruit juice (or fruit drinks) you drink.
• Cut screen time (computer, television, hand-held) to two hours or less a day.
• Participate in at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day—anything from a daily family walk to bike rides to trips to the community pool.
• Eliminate soda and sugar-sweetened sports and fruit drinks. Instead, drink water and three to four servings a day of fat-free skim milk or 1-percent milk.

And that “0” at the end is no joke, by the way. Soda, sugary juice, even some supposedly healthy sports drinks are packed with all the stuff that will elevate a child’s blood sugar, putting them at risk for diabetes and leaving them too “sugar crashed” to be active.

These simple changes can make a big difference in your child’s health—and yours. The trick is to make it a family matter. You can also involve your family physician or pediatrician in the plan to live healthier. He or she is a great source of information and support and can connect you with resources in the community that can help.

The beauty of the 5-2-1-0 Challenge is that it’s something you and your family can get started on today. It’s easy to use. It’s easy to remember. So it’s easy for children to take ownership in the process — a critical component for success. Call (336) 718-3281 or e-mail to request a copy of our Health Tracker for you or your child.

You can click here to download a copy.