The rise in America’s level of obesity isn’t just affecting adults. Children are increasingly developing weight related diseases once seen only among an older population. Fatty liver disease, hypertension and osteoporosis are among the typically adult diseases being diagnosed more and more in children. Others include sleep apnea, Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol levels.

The importance of recognizing obesity early and stopping the cardiovascular decline it causes in young children has become so critical that the American Academy of Pediatrics established guidelines and recommendations for pediatricians, who typically do not see the resulting health issues in their patients.

“Several studies have shown that obesity is under recognized by parents as well as by physicians,” said Dr. Seema Kumar, of the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center.

“Parents in general tend to think they will outgrow it. It also depends on the ethnic group they’re coming from. In some cultures, being overweight is actually a sign of prosperity. So they may actually not even consider that as a problem.”

A study by the New York University Langone Medical Center, published online in April in the journal Childhood Obesity confirmed Kumar’s observations. It found that while rates of childhood obesity have risen over the last several decades, an overwhelming majority of parents perceive their kids as “about the right weight.”

Dr. James J. Maciejko, who studies the science of fats in the body at the Adult and Pediatric Lipid Clinics at St. John Hospital in Detroit, is deeply concerned by how few Americans understand the grave dangers posed by overeating. Maciejko sees children eating 3,000 calories a day, which is significantly more than their young bodies can handle. In general, he recommends that pre-pubescent children should be consuming about 2,000 calories per day, slightly more if they are extremely active. After puberty, most boys should consume about 2,000 calories a day and girls about 1,500.

So what should parents do?

In short, the same things adults should be doing: Eating healthy sources of protein such as low-fat dairy products, lean cuts of meat and eggs; fresh fruit and vegetables, and healthy beverages such as water and skim milk, according to Maciejko.

He also advises to avoid excess starch such as potatoes, pasta, and white bread and instead eating whole-grain pasta, rye or whole-grain bread and vegetables.

The big key though is portions. Whether the foods are healthier or not, the total amount matters.

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