The Kids Aren't Alright

Think your kids are better off than you were? Think again. Half of American children now suffer from chronic illnesses that can be traced to technology overload, processed foods, sedentary lifestyles, and stress. We give parents easy solutions to overcome today's health pitfalls.
By Sarah Tuff

Life has improved significantly since 1975, the year Captain & Tennille topped the charts and super-curly perms and pantsuits were everywhere. The US has made tremendous advances in scientific research and medicine (and, as many would argue, in fashion and music, too).

What hasn’t improved, however, is children’s health. Kids under age 18 are unhealthier than they were 35 years ago, reports the Foundation for Child Development in New York City. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past three decades. Twenty-five percent of kids under 5 years old are now at risk for developmental and behavioral problems, while one in five children already suffers from a mental health problem—such as autism or bipolar disorder—that interferes with day-to-day functioning. What’s more, one in two kids now struggles with a chronic illness such as asthma or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Doctors would have us believe Americans have the best health in the world, but take a good look at the facts,” says Jared Skowron, ND, a naturopath in Wallingford, Connecticut, and author of Fundamentals of Naturopathic Pediatrics (CCNM Press, 2009). “Thirty-three percent of children between the ages of 15 and 18 are obese—that’s the most of any industrialized country. How bad do things need to get before we stop, stand up, and fight for what is right?”

As the mom of two preschoolers who face modern dangers, I’m planning to make my children healthier by adopting these simple solutions, provided by Skowron and other natural-health experts.

Pitfall #1: Too much technology
Thanks to feel-good advertisements with peppy music, we can’t help but believe that high-tech devices are good for us. But US kids are now plugged into screens, such as computers, video games, and TVs, for an astonishing average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day, reports a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The study also found that 47 percent of kids who are heavy media users don’t do well academically; a separate report recently published in Psychological Science found that young boys who own video-game systems perform worse in school than boys who don’t play video games. And a new Iowa State University study, which analyzed 130 research reports on more than 130,000 subjects worldwide, found conclusive evidence that playing violent video games makes kids more aggressive. Even “safe” media such as educational websites can have harmful effects on socialization and creative development, says Rita Bettenburg, ND, dean of naturopathic medicine at the National College of Natural Medicine. “Watching flashing lights on-screen is passive learning, and it influences neurological patterning for the rest of kids’ lives,” she says. “They’re unable to process information in the most effective way.”

SOLUTION: Create boundaries
Computers aren’t all bad. They can be useful teaching tools, as can certain television programs—and some video games even encourage creativity and physical fitness. Plus, completely unplugging kids from the gadgets their friends use can lead to social isolation and give these items a “forbidden” quality that makes screen time even more appealing. The key is putting these tools back in the box when they’re finished, Skowron says. Encourage other hobbies such as playing music, drawing, or taking photos. Limit all electronics time to less than two hours daily, says Kathi Kemper, MD, author of Mental Health, Naturally: The Family Guide to Holistic Care for a Healthy Mind and Body (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010). TVs should be kept out of kids’ rooms and turned off when the family is eating. Finally, Bettenburg suggests, spend time with your kids when they are watching TV, going online, or playing video games—and then bring out a book to read together or a soccer ball to kick around as a family.

Pitfall #2: Processed foods
Consider that, thanks in part to the fat in processed foods, 24 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls now have high cholesterol, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fast-releasing carbs in processed foods can also cause sugar cravings and increase the risk of weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease, explains Patrick Holford, a British nutritionist and author of Optimum Nutrition for Your Child (Piatkus Books, 2010). What’s more, sugar cravings are associated with delinquency and behavior problems such as ADHD. And several studies, including one published in the journal The Lancet in 2007, link artificial food colorings to hyperactive behavior. “Processed foods also have fewer essential fats and B vitamins and less zinc, vital for brain function and intellectual development,” Holford says.

SOLUTION: Get real
Buy real food instead of packaged food products. Wheel your grocery cart around the perimeter of the store, selecting fresh items like wild-caught salmon, Greek yogurt, and organic fruits and vegetables. (The pesticide chlorpyrifos, used on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, was recently linked to physical and mental developmental delays in young kids in a report published in the American Journal of Public Health.)

Don’t buy soda, and instead of serving juice at every meal and snack time, serve water (filtered at home) or diluted cherry or berry juice (high in antioxidants), Holford says. “If they want a fizzy drink, add seltzer water,” he suggests. When you do turn down the grocery store aisles, select rolled oats, granola, rice cakes, organic popcorn, and other products with the fewest possible and simplest ingredients.

By lowering kids’ sugar intake and giving them protein paired with a slow-releasing, low-glycemic-index carbohydrate, such as a handful of almonds with a plum, you’ll help them avoid developing a sweet tooth, Holford says. “With the slow-releasing carbs in the plum, you don’t get such big blood-sugar peaks or lows. The protein in almonds takes longer to digest, enabling sugar in the plums to be released gradually from the gut into the blood. And all of this leads to fewer sugar cravings.” And that benefit is worth any extra monetary or time cost. “Optimally nourished children are brighter, calmer, more adaptable, and better able to make friends,” Holford says. “And they look and feel healthier, too.”

Pitfall #3: Sedentary lifestyles
Today’s culture values test scores over recess and television’s Dora the Explorer over exploring the outdoors—and the results are profoundly troubling. A study by the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan found that kids spend half as much time outdoors today as they did in the early 1980s—50 minutes per week versus 1 hour and 40 minutes per week.
For many kids, even 50 minutes may be a stretch. A 2009 study published in Child Development found that preschoolers spend 89 percent of their day-care time doing sedentary activities. This inactivity has long-lasting effects: A new study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine showed that obesity causes late onset of puberty in boys, while New Zealand researchers discovered that kids who don’t get enough exercise have difficulty falling asleep at night. And as Richard Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books, 2005), nature-deficit disorder is preventing kids from thriving. Kids who don’t get nature time, he writes, seem more prone to obesity, depression, and attention disorders.

 SOLUTION: Start moving
“Set aside a specific time of day every day to be outside,” Skowron says. The National Wildlife Federation calls this the Green Hour, an essential part of kids’ happiness and health. Ideas for Green Hour include backyard scavenger hunts, games of freeze tag, and making dandelion chains (remember those?). Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found physically fit children do better in school, so create your own physical-fitness test for children to perform, or sign up for a road race that also has a short kids’ run. Further research reveals that kids who engage in creative and active play grow up to be healthier adults and have stronger bonds with their parents. Don’t wait for sunny weather; invest in good boots and other outerwear for the family and make activity as automatic as brushing teeth. “Kids need to be running around until they drop,” Bettenburg says.  

Pitfall #4: Anxiety and stress
The days when stress belonged only to adults are long gone. The American Psychological Association’s 2009 Stress in America survey found that 26 percent of kids ages 8 to 12 reported more worry than in the previous year; 30 percent of these tweens said they get headaches, and 49 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 said they have trouble sleeping due to anxiety. Lack of sleep, in turn, can trigger the high blood sugar that precedes diabetes, scientists note in a recent issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. And it’s not just the onslaught of media, war, or the rocky economy causing anxiety, Bettenburg says. It is also a result of “helicopter parenting”: moms and dads working so hard to prevent frustrations and failures that they actually deny their children valuable lessons and problem-solving skills. “Kids are stressed because they perceive themselves as powerless,” she explains. “They have no concept these days of how to solve problems, so if it’s not the way they want it, it’s scary.”

SOLUTION: Open communication
You may not know why your children are stressed, but you can do something to relieve their anxiety. “Create a nurturing, loving environment by playing outside with them or teaching them how to cook a healthy meal,” Skowron says, adding that engaging kids in a relaxing activity makes them more likely to tell you about their problems. But kids also need to learn how to fail. “Parents have been socialized to feel that they shouldn’t allow their children to feel pain,” Bettenburg explains. “Kids have to get frustrated—they need to have limits, and they need to be allowed to fail in a supported way.” So if your middle schooler flunks a math test or her team loses another soccer game, there should be no rewards or trophies. Instead, talk with her about what she can learn from the experience. Meanwhile, reduce stress by engaging in creative play and exercising regularly. Such strategies will bring about a natural calm that can help fend off kids’ everyday worries about the world at large.

Sarah Tuff is a health, fitness, and adventure-sports writer who lives in Shelburne, Vermont, with her husband and two young children. Her favorite stress releases are running and skiing.