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The obesity epidemic has grown considerably in recent years, particularly in children and adolescents. In fact, one in every three American children is overweight or obese.

Like other childhood health conditions such as diabetes and asthma, obesity in children requires some form of lifestyle intervention. Numerous studies have found that overweight children and teens are much more likely to become overweight adults unless they make positive lifestyle changes in eating and physical activity.

Parents and guardians are key decision-makers who affect the lifestyle needs when it comes to the nutrition, physical activity and health of their children.

While the problem of obesity is largely due to inactivity coupled with poor diet, several other factors also contribute to the problem. Those factors include culture, a family history of obesity, medications, medical illness, stressful life events/changes, low self-esteem and depression or other emotional problems.

Children who are overweight are at greater risk of developing complications such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Additionally, these children are at an increased risk of developing emotional problems such as depression and anxiety.

Although the risks and complications associated with childhood obesity are burdensome, they are not necessarily permanent. Families can do a number of things to combat obesity. By making healthy eating and regular exercise a family activity, parents can improve the chances of successful weight control and positively affect their children's health in a big way.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends families start with one of the "5-2-1-0" behaviors and set specific goals to improve their health:

* 5 - Eat at least five fruits and vegetables every day.

* 2 - Limit screen time (such as television, computer, video games) to two hours or less per day. Children younger than 2 should have no screen time at all.

* 1 - Strive for one hour or more of physical activity every day.

* 0 - Drink fewer sugar-sweetened drinks. Try water and low-fat milk instead.

In addition to the 5-2-1-0 goals, adopt family activities such as eating breakfast every day; limiting fast food, take-out food and eating out at restaurants; and preparing foods at home and eating meals together as a family.

Turn family time into fun, active time by taking a family bike ride or hike, going to the park and throwing a ball back and forth, or taking a family martial arts class together.

Choose to be healthy. Use 5-2-1-0 goals every day.

Remember, small changes can make a big difference in the long run. Maintain a lifestyle for your child that supports healthy eating and active living.

Discuss your child's weight with a doctor at least annually. A registered dietitian can assist with developing goals for healthy eating and physical activity.

Go online to www.kidseatright.org for reliable, scientifically-based health and nutrition information to help children grow healthy.

For more information on childhood obesity, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at cdc.gov/obesity/childhood.

Editor's note: Allison Pompey is a public health researcher for U.S. Army Public Health Command.

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