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Grandparents as parents
Childhood obesity

As March begins, we long for warmer days and greener grass. This is the month in which we celebrate St. Patrick's Day, and traditionally we eat a meal of corned beef and cabbage. And at our house, we always make shamrock-shaped sugar cookies with that yummy almond-flavored frosting we all love so much.

Those of us who are parenting our grandchildren need to be aware of what our grandchildren are eating, however—every day, not just on holidays. We must make sure they eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables so a cookie or cupcake won't be a problem for them as a special treat on holidays or birthdays.

Childhood obesity is the condition in which excess body fat negatively affects a child's health or well-being. It is on the rise in the United States and is reaching epidemic proportions.

Obesity in early childhood can lead to adult obesity. First Lady Michelle Obama started the Let's Move Campaign on Jan. 6 to combat childhood obesity, and the government has intervened to make school lunches more healthful and lower in calories.

Children become overweight and obese for a variety of reasons. The most common causes are genetic factors, lack of physical activity, and poor eating patterns—or a combination of the three. Only rarely is being overweight caused by a medical condition such as a hormonal problem.

If your grandchild is diagnosed with childhood obesity or even receives a warning that she is at risk, it can be devastating. This is especially true for the grandma who has taken on the parenting role. But there are many ways to reduce or prevent obesity in your grandchild. In doing so, you'll lower her risk of serious health consequences.

The first thing to do is to improve your grandchild's eating habits. This is important for any child, but especially for the overweight child. Your grandchild does not need a crash diet. He needs an improved way of eating that he can sustain for years to come. Discuss his needs with a doctor or nutritionist. Generally, he will need a diet low in fat and empty calories but rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, lean meats, and whole grains. Eliminate the empty calories found in juice and soda. Low-fat milk and water are much better beverage choices. It will particularly help your grandchild if the whole family can eat in the same healthful manner. Limit sweet treats, giving fresh or frozen fruit as desserts.

You should also increase your grandchild's physical activity—and here again, it will work better if the whole family gets more active together. People of all ages, from preschoolers to senior adults, should be active for 60 minutes every day. Don't panic! Short bursts of 10 to 20 minutes of activity several times a day are OK. Find some activities that you can do with your grandchildren, such as walking, biking, and swimming. My grandkids' favorite was swimming, and we purchased season swim memberships every year. As your family becomes more active, be sure to limit sedentary activities such as TV and video games.

Children who are overweight often have low self-esteem, and the two conditions can combine to form a hard-to-stop cycle. So, as you help your grandchild make physical changes through diet and exercise, be sure to build her emotional and psychological health, as well. Perhaps it would be beneficial to seek help with this from a family therapist.

My best wishes to all of you and your precious grandchildren for a healthy and happy St. Patrick's Day!