We can do a lot as parents to protect our kids from ailments that strike typically in middle age and beyond, according to research by Tulane University physician Gerald S. Berenson.

Berenson’s Bogalusa Heart Study has been tracking 145,000 children and young adults over a period of 30 years. It all starts in childhood. It’s our “window of opportunity” to have an impact on a child’s weight, height, bones and tooth strength.

Other diseases have their origins in childhood, too. Diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes all can be linked back to poor habits developed during childhood. As a parent, try these suggestions to help protect your child.

• Don’t mix food and television. Kids consume more calories when they eat in front of a TV, probably because the distraction makes them less aware of what they’re eating. The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior reported that families that watch TV during dinner tend to eat higher-fat foods. TV-viewing comes up in virtually every study as having a strong correlation with childhood obesity.

• Sit down to a family meal. A study of students in Saint Paul, Minnesota, found that children who ate frequently with their families ate more fruits, vegetables, grains and calcium-rich foods and drank fewer soft drinks.

• Cut back on the juice. A small glass of orange juice in the morning is enough. Switch kids to drinking more water and low-fat milk or serve them a whole piece of fruit instead.

• Encourage sporting friendships. Kids who exercise regularly are less likely to be overweight. Girls who exercise as teenagers can affect their long-term osteoporosis risk. A Purdue University study found that the most physically active children were those who had a close friend taking part in the same activity.

• Keep offering rejected foods. Kids naturally prefer sweet and salty foods. They learn to like everything else. A rule of 15, encouraging parents to offer a healthy food at least 15 times (waiting two to three weeks before bringing back a rejected food).

• Control the food in the house. Exerting too much control over a child’s eating can backfire. A safer bet is to pack the fridge and cupboards with healthy foods and put balanced meals on the table.

• Set a good example. At every stage of a child’s development, parental example is a good way to influence behavior. Parents who exercise and have good eating habits are more likely to have kids who do the same.

As parents, let’s not overlook that one of the most important skills we can teach our children is lifelong health. Please help your child learn good health and nutrition habits. It’s a skill that will last their lifetime.

Jennifer Russell is an area child and family development agent for the Mississippi State University Extension Service. You may contact her at 453-6803 or jtb20@ext.msstate.edu.

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