WASHINGTON — With the national rate of childhood obesity increasing, the Defense Department wants to ensure children in military families lead healthy and active lifestyles, the Defense Department’s director of the office of family policy and children and youth said.
In a recent interview with American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel, Barbara Thompson said that nationally, 12.5 million children and adolescents from age 2 to 19 are overweight, a figure that’s tripled since 1980. Military children are a microcosm of that group, she noted.
Today’s generation of children is the first one at risk of dying before their parents, Thompson said. Facing such risks, families should set goals for healthy food choices and more physical activities for their children.
“It’s important for children to see the most important models in their lives doing the same things they should do,” she said. “It’s of critical importance that children start healthy habits at a very early age. The bottom line is (that) obesity is preventable.”
DOD’s message for young children and adolescents is called 5-2-1, Thompson said. It calls for five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, two hours or less of “screen time,” one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise and zero sweetened drinks, which is a plan that can be used at home and in school. She defined screen time as any activity involving television, computers, video games, movies and other devices that lead to a sedentary lifestyle.
Obesity also can lead to serious diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure, Thompson said. Children without healthy diets and routine exercise start at early ages to build plaque in their arteries, and are at risk for future health issues, she added.
And national security can become an issue when people cannot enter military service because of their weight and health-related diseases, Thompson said.
Resources for setting dietary and exercise goals are abundant for military families, Thompson said. One way to begin children on a path to healthy eating and routine exercise is to have meals as families, she said. Cutting sugar and salt, reducing overall fat and cooking in a healthy manner, such as steaming certain foods rather than fat-frying them, also are necessary to a better lifestyle, she noted.
After dinner, families can take walks together and make plans for weekend bike rides and other physical activities, Thompson suggested.
Health and nutrition help is available from numerous resources, she said, noting that first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative includes a website that provides a variety of healthy recipes and ways to add activity into children’s’ everyday lives.
While school districts have begun to offer healthy food choices, parents should become involved with the Parent-Teacher Association and similar groups if their children’s schools do not deliver healthy food choices or provide inadequate exercise time and activities, she said.
The Military OneSource website offers a health and wellness coach program that’s good for goal setting for cardiovascular health and nutrition habits, Thompson said.
Child and youth development centers and morale, welfare, and recreation programs on military installations offer emphasis on eating healthy foods and pursuing active lifestyles, she said. Help also is available to advise families on how to shop for groceries and prepare meals in a healthy manner, she said.
“The earlier children ingrain specific (habits), the more they will stay with them – whether it’s brushing their teeth before bed, washing their hands, or (remembering) to drink water and eat fruits and vegetables,” Thompson said.