This September, in honor of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, the Inside Track is featuring a four-week challenge from the American Heart Association (AHA), the EmpowerMEnt Challenge. This week, the Inside Track interviewed Dr. Linda Van Horn, a professor of preventive medicine and nutrition at Northwestern University, to get some more ideas on how families can “empower their glass” by filling it with the healthiest thirst-quenchers.
“My whole worldview is prevention,” Dr. Linda Van Horn says. And in her view, prevention of obesity and its related health challenges needs to begin as early as possible.
“Starting young is really the most powerful opportunity we have in trying to do something about trying to reduce the terrible obesity epidemic,” says Van Horn, a member of the AHA’s Nutrition Committee and a veteran researcher.
“The studies we’ve done in adults have been gratifying, but children represent a primary opportunity for preventing chronic diseases. I have two grown sons of my own, and I see that in them and their friends.” (She noted with pride that instilling healthy habits has paid off when she sees her sons, now both in their 20s, show off their cooking skills to friends.)
Along with healthy foods, developing a preference for healthy beverages is a key step in this process. The theme of Week Two of the AHA’s EmpowerMEnt Challenge is “Empower Your Glass,” in which parents and kids are encouraged to experiment with reaching for a drink of water instead of a sugar-sweetened beverage—and tracking to see whether their family grocery bill will go down.
Van Horn suggested that for parents, there are three key steps to Empowering Your Glass:
- First, recognize food marketing of sugar-sweetened beverages that is targeting your children “and what can you do as a parent to limit that.” One way to do this is by limiting time in front of the TV and computer.
- Second, parents are role models and need to do as they want their children to do. “If mom and dad are drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, there’s no question that the kids are going to want to do that too,” Van Horn noted, “and we know that’s even more detrimental for adults.”
- Third, she said, “it’s a matter of really discussing with the kids and providing only those things that children should be drinking: milk and water” with an occasional small glass of 100 percent natural, no-sugar-added juice.
Making these changes takes time, but children are adaptable, she said—which is why they need repeated opportunities to try new things.
To make water a more appealing thirst-quencher, she suggested experimenting with ideas such as putting fresh fruit in a water jug, “kind of the fun factor that attracts children to soft drinks,” but in a healthier version. Such creative approaches to making drinking water more appealing will help, she said: “This is America, come on! We can come up with a cooler way to drink water from a fountain!”
The goal of the EmpowerMEnt Challenge is “to see a family embrace of these behaviors that truly are valuable to every member of the family. It’s not just about the kids,” Van Horn said. “I just can’t emphasize enough how useful it is to have them engage in this behavior and model that for the kids in a way that just says, ‘Our family does this. Our family drinks water, eats fruits and veggies’.”
Each Wednesday in September at 1 p.m. EDT, join @American_Heart and friends on Twitter at #LifeIsWhy to get information about the week’s EmpowerMEnt Challenge.