NPR - All Things Considered: Defeating Childhood Obesity

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Defeating Childhood Obesity
Families Who Diet Together Keep the Weight Off

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USDA food pyramid

The Stoplight diet calls for substituting fatty foods and sweets for a diet filled with fruits, vegetables and grains. Above, the USDA's dietary guidelines for a well-balanced diet. Image: USDA and DHHS

See an enlarged version of the food pyramid.

Dec. 26, 2001 -- Over the past 20 years, obesity has become an epidemic among America’s children. The condition threatens children’s health and can even shorten their lives. It also can hurt their ability to make friends.

Dr. Leonard Epstein, a University of Buffalo researcher, created a weight loss program that has proven effective in helping children lose weight and not regain it. The program requires children to team up with parents and change what they eat, how they eat and add more exercise into their daily schedule.

The Heusslers, a suburban Buffalo family, recently enrolled in the program to help their 11-year-old son Jud lose weight. For All Things Considered, NPR’s Vicky Que spends a day with the family learning about the Stoplight diet, and the Heusslers' struggle with obesity.

About The Stoplight Diet

Today, one out of four children is considered clinically obese, a number that has doubled over the last 20 years. Children with a body mass index (BMI) -- a number calculated by dividing a person's weight by his height -- over 25 are considered overweight, while those with a BMI over 30 are considered obese.

Dr. Leonard Epstein began developing a diet program in the 1970s to treat overweight children and prevent obesity. Epstein's Stoplight diet requires parents to team up with their children to make long-term diet, exercise and lifestyle changes. Some highlights:

• The best time to intervene is when children are between the ages of 8 and 12.

• The whole family should take part. Children are most successful at losing and keeping off weight when the entire family is in on the diet.

• Foods are linked to the three signals on a traffic light: High-calorie foods, like soda and cookies, are "red" and should rarely be eaten. Moderate-calorie foods, like cereal, are "yellow" and should be eaten with caution. "Green" foods, which include most vegetables, get the go-ahead.

• Successful dieters change the meaning of "snacks." Junk food is a major reason obesity has doubled among children, with studies showing one-third of a child's daily calories come from snacking on junk food. Epstein advocates replacing chips and candy with apples, grapes and raisins.

• Contending that the sedentary lifestyle created by watching television is a prime culprit behind obesity, Esptein advises turning the TV off.

• Monthly weigh-ins, food logs and peer support groups keep dieters on track during the program.

In Depth

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Other Resources

• Calculate your body mass index at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's Web site.

• In December 2001, the surgeon general issued a call to action to prevent and decrease obesity. Read the report's section on weight problems among children.

• Read the government's dietary guidelines for Americans.

• The Weight-control Information Network provides information on obesity, weight control and nutrition for health professionals and consumers.

• Reading lists, exercise advice and diet guidelines for children can be found at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Information Center Web site.

• Visit for more information on healthy eating.

• Read more about Epstein's Stoplight diet at the University of Buffalo Web site.