There is an epidemic that is destroying children’s lives, draining family resources and has the potential to push our country’s Social Security and Medicare systems dangerously close to collapse; and it’s happening as we speak.

In 1960, only four percent of American children were considered obese. That number has skyrocketed to 15 percent today, and is almost triple that number in certain ethnic groups.

“Staggering” is the word the U.S. Surgeon General uses to describe the potential healthcare costs of childhood obesity. “We are seeing Generation Y growing into Generation XL,” he has declared.

Most of the parents of kids I care for are shocked to learn that the most common health problem facing U.S. children today is being overweight— a condition robbing kids of both their quality and quantity of life. Medical problems that we doctors once saw only in adults age 50 or older are now striking children: heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, asthma, joint problems, arthritis.

One in three children born in 2000 are expected to develop type 2 diabetes, with the risk of blindness, loss of kidney function and early death associated with it. This is the first generation in American history whose life expectancy may actually decrease.

A national survey of parents indicated that almost 70 percent want their children to have good nutrition and eating habits. However, only 40 percent said they’ve succeeded in this area of parenting.

Why this discrepancy between desire and success?

Most parents aren’t willing to practice what they preach. Only 51 percent of parents rate exercising and being physically fit as absolutely essential to impress on their children. In addition, more than nine out of every ten parents say they let their child eat junk food. And 20 percent of parents let their children eat junk food constantly.

The startling statistics in these national surveys pinpoint what I saw in my practice and in my own family: We parents are failing to teach good nutrition, exercise and sleep habits, and it’s not because we lack the information and knowledge.

If we want our children to be healthy, we must model good nutrition and eating habits. Furthermore, it’s much easier to teach these principles to children when they are young.

It would surprise many of my patients to learn that the vast majority of the factors leading to overweight or obese kids are not genetic factors— but lifestyle factors. Simply put, overweight and under-active couch potatoes are not born, they are raised.

Studies tell us infants and toddlers are being fed poorly— with too much fat, sugar and salt and too few fruits and vegetables. One-third of these children are fed no fruits or vegetables— and for those who are, fries were the most common selection.

Most kids spend too much time with the TV and too little time sleeping at night and playing outside during the day. Most families don’t spend significant time walking and talking together. All of these factors can lead to sedentary, overweight families.

There’s no better time than in childhood to make a lifelong impact on your child’s nutritional habits— an impact that will contribute to disease prevention for years to come. If we parents do not model healthy nutrition, exercise and sleep habits, our children (and their children) will likely suffer grave consequences.

20 Habits That Can Super Size Your Kids

  1. Give your kids lots of soft drinks!
  2. Fail to teach your kids good eating habits.
  3. Don’t involve your entire family in fun physical activity.
  4. Let you children or teens sleep less than nine hours per night.
  5. Let your kids have caffeinated drinks, cocoa or chocolate after 3pm.
  6. Let your kids watch all the TV they want and let them eat or snack in front of the TV.
  7. Let your child have a TV in his or her bedroom.
  8. Don’t exercise with your kids.
  9. Let your kids eat junk food every day.
  10. Don’t feed your kids enough fruits and vegetables.
  11. Be sure your children get protein sources that are chock full of saturated fats— or that are fatty and fried.
  12. Be sure your kids get plenty of food that is highly processed and packed with highly refined sugar.
  13. Be sure your kids eat or drink full-fat dairy products.
  14. Give your kids snacks loaded with saturated and trans fats.
  15. Let your child skip breakfast most days.
  16. Fail to have family meals five or more times each week.
  17. Let your kids eat frequently at fast-food restaurants.
  18. When it comes to liquids, let your kids drink anything but water.
  19. Allow your kids to play video games as much as they want to.
  20. Have your child attend a school with limited recess and physical education.