Toward the end of summer, just before the kids went back to school, I sat at the counter in a Waffle House in North Carolina. I thought, let me get a quick glimpse of what they’re eating in this nice little southern town in 2007. To my left, I saw a woman pouring six teaspoons of sugar in her coffee, in between bites of a biscuit with several pats of butter. To my right, the children at the table were eating chocolate chip waffles loaded with whipped cream, with a side order of bacon, and drinking glasses of orange juice bigger than they were. Straight ahead at the food preparation area, the server was handling tomatoes with her bare hands. Gross.

I lost my appetite. I felt so disenchanted that despite the oodles of information on how eating affects our health and longevity, the majority of people – parents included – seem to ignore nutrition. Make that parents especially.

The State of Our Health in 2007

  • Heart disease and cancer still remain the most devastating killers in the United States. Continued research suggests that good nutrition and physical activity can make a world of difference, even preventing these deadly diseases.
  • Prescription and over-the-counter weight loss medications and gastric bypass procedures are a multi-billion dollar business in the United States. Much of this spending could be limited if we parents are willing to have some discipline and make long-term changes to our families’ eating habits and lifestyles.
  • Children in the United States have never been more unhealthy. Kids today are fat— more than 35 percent of American children are overweight with incredibly high cholesterol and lipid levels and type 2 diabetes in record numbers. Many kids can barely breathe during field games. Where are their parents and caretakers when it comes to making health and fitness priorities?

Parents, it is up to you. You are the role models for your children. Your attitudes toward food, eating and exercise undoubtedly influence your children. Eating habits, good or bad, formed early in life are often carried into adulthood. Therefore, the likelihood of an obese and unhealthy child becoming an obese adult continues to increase with age. More than 70 percent of obese adolescents will become obese adults. Isn’t that tragic, especially when obesity can be avoided?

For the many parents who consider it too late to correct their own poor eating habits and lifestyles, 2008 is the year to turn unhealthy lifestyles into healthier ones. With perseverance, guidance and practice, parents can also keep their children on the right track to optimum health by introducing proper eating and exercise habits that will hopefully continue well into adulthood. Give your children the best chance at a good life. Teach children how to make decent food choices and have healthy exercise habits for life.

Change the way you feel about exercise. An August 2007 report in USA Today stated that 62 percent of America is sitting on the couch. For parents and children to get healthier and more fit, sufficient exercise is a must. In fact, 70-80 percent of the emphasis in having a healthy body and being able to lose weight successfully boils down to exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association recently updated their exercise guidelines to 30 minutes per day. Do it for yourself and do it for your children.

While you’re fulfilling the fitness quota, clean up your act! Rid the fridge, pantry and freezer of high-fat items such as regular ice cream, regular cookies (rather than nonfat and low-fat options) and the like. Eliminate other high-fat items such as regular chips, microwaveable popcorn and whole milk. Here are some other health-conscious tips to heed.

  • Find replacements for unhealthy foods. Choose Smart Balance margarine, which is trans fat free, in lieu of butter and other margarines, as well as baked chips instead of regular fried chips.
  • Buy low-fat mayonnaise, sour cream, salad dressings and cottage cheese, instead of the regular versions.
  • Switch to whole wheat bread with a minimum of three to four grams of fiber per slice. Now, there’s even “white” bread with fiber available, such as Wonder and Nature’s Own brands.
  • Buy frozen desserts with minimal sugar and fat and sugar-free popsicles.
  • Stock up on “100 calorie” packages of low-fat ice cream and a few 100 calorie packs of cookies or crackers.
  • Say no to soda! It is possible to exist without soda— or at least regular soda. When you consider that regular soda and fruit juices can add 200-plus calories per drink, it proves it’s time to eliminate these empty calories from your home. Stock up on bottled water or calorie-free, sugar-free flavored waters. And if you must sate your soft drink craving, make all sodas diet.

In honor of the New Year, set some new rules in the household. As a family, make real commitments that will work for you. Some ideas:

  • Food is not a friend to be taken with us from room to room; food has a time and place. Allow eating in kitchen and dining room areas only. This goes for snacks, too. No more coffee table dinners, or dinners in bedrooms while doing homework.
  • Plan more family dinner nights.
  • Find a unique form of family exercise. Salsa classes, tennis lessons, tandem bikes— anything active that indulges all family members plays a critical role in the entire clan living a long, healthy life while having an enjoyable time.
  • Put the snacks away. Snacking seems to be a part of everyone’s life these days. Keep predominantly healthy snacks at home. And, snacks should not be left on the counters for easy access. Put snacks behind closed doors, away from clear sight— and out of mind. At the same time, have fruit bowls readily available and easily accessible.

Even fast food can be healthier, if you make the right choices. Guide your family in making smart fast food decisions. Consider Boston Market’s skinless chicken, corn on the cob, veggies and cinnamon apples. Another place for healthy yet quick chicken satisfaction is Pollo Tropical for skinless chicken with black beans and rice, and perhaps some boiled yucca. At Quizno’s and Subway, stick with turkey or roast beef sandwiches with honey mustard, or opt for salads. Kudos to Subway for carrying Baked Lays. And Burger King, which grills burgers, is a much better choice than McDonald’s or Wendy’s for hamburgers.

Many fast food establishments are finally offering healthier options such as applesauce, low-fat milk and baked chips. Let the kids try the more nutritious fare. Eating healthy even when in a hurry is all a matter of attitude— yours, too!

You’re off— but not without breakfast.

While laying the groundwork for a new routine in 2008, it’s essential to return to breakfast. So many family members are guilty of leaving the house in the morning without a good meal. People often say there is just not enough time for breakfast. But this is not true. Anyone can find a few minutes to have a healthy, fuel-filled first meal. Following are six simple breakfast ideas, each of which can be made in less than six minutes.

  1. A quick and easy fruit plate might consist of melon slices, grapes, strawberries and a cut-up banana. Complete the meal by serving low-fat yogurt and half of a whole wheat English muffin.
  2. One cup of low-fat yogurt complements cereal and raisins or cran-raisins as toppings. Take turkey bacon to go.
  3. Egg whites and low-fat cheese serve as great fillings for a whole wheat tortilla wrap.
  4. Oatmeal, made with low-fat milk for extra calcium, tastes terrific with Splenda, cinnamon and berries.
  5. A slice of low-fat cheese suits a hard boiled egg.
  6. For a fast fruit smoothie, blend one cup of low-fat milk with a favorite fruit, four ice cubes, Splenda and a half-teaspoon of vanilla essence. On the run? Put the smoothie in a “to-go” cup.

As you’ll see, healthy ideas are almost endless and take just a bit of thought. Parents should write a short list of what they want to accomplish in the name of good health for the New Year— for themselves and their children. Then get started! From group dog walking and bike riding jaunts, to shooting hoops in the backyard and saying “no” to junk food and “yes” to regular family dinners, healthy habits should last for many new years to come.