When childhood habits turn into life-threatening illnesses and how a healthier lifestyle can help

By Nora Heston Tarte


In the United States, heart disease, diabetes and obesity are among the most common health concerns. According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 9.3 percent of Americans have diabetes, 23.5 percent of deaths in the U.S. are caused by heart disease—and both are often propelled by obesity. For many, these illnesses are preventable or can at least be kept at bay with a healthy lifestyle, however, they are often entangled and heavily affected by diet and exercise. Early intervention is key.

“Although it is possible to change bad habits later on in life, it is easier to have the right start early in life and parents can make all the difference,” says Christi Christiaens, a certified clinical nutritionist at the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale.

Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the U.S. and nearly half of all Americans have at least one major risk factor for heart disease—a smoking habit, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Diabetes, being overweight, poor diet and physical inactivity all increase risk.

“Health outcomes in adulthood are greatly influenced by a variety of behaviors that we learn as children, and are rooted in the habits we develop in regards to physical activity and nutrition,” says Addey Rascon, diabetes prevention program director at Valley of the Sun YMCA in Phoenix. “A high likelihood that cardiovascular risk factors present in obese children will persist as they get older and further into adulthood, if unaddressed.”

Being overweight or obese increases chances of death from heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other severe illnesses. While genetics and other factors such as race can contribute to the likelihood of these illnesses, poor nutrition and infrequent or nonexistent exercise are also culprits.

“Medical conditions, such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes are directly related to poor dietary habits,” Christiaens says.

Not only can dedicating your family to a healthy lifestyle reduce the risk of becoming overweight and contracting diabetes and heart disease, a proper diet can actually reverse these issues.

“A diet that is filled with fresh vegetables, lean meat, fish, fruits, beans, nuts, whole grains, seeds and a small quantity of healthy fats can transform people so they lose weight and repair cell damage,” Christiaens explains. “This way of eating lowers glucose in the blood, restores insulin sensitivity and pancreatic function, decreases the risk of complications and improves quality of life.”

Sometimes the hardest part is getting started. Christiaens stresses the importance of being organized. Try starting each day with a nutritious breakfast—something easy like yogurt with fruit, eggs on toast, oatmeal, a smoothie or a protein shake—and ending the day with a family dinner.

“To share one meal a day with all family members is not only about the food, it’s a time to connect with each other, communicate on what’s going on and give each other time and attention,” Christiaens says. “Every meal does not have to be a dinner extravaganza. Steam a bunch of veggies with a protein and a piece of fruit as dessert. Make it simple, the most important thing about family meals is to make them frequent and fun.”

The same sentiment can be applied to fitness. Joining a local gym or community center that offers nutrition and exercise programs for the whole family instills good habits in children. In addition to its breadth of physical activities and nutrition courses, the Y offers opportunities for families to workout together.

Health is not, however, simply about going for a run or eating a well-balanced meal. “Adolescence is a crucial period for establishing healthful behaviors. Exposure to and involvement in the Y during this formative time gives [kids] skills and habits that will carry with them into adulthood,” Rascon says. “In my opinion, having a healthy lifestyle has different definitions to different people. It does not simply mean being healthy; it encompasses all aspects of health—including nutrition, physical activity and your overall outlook on life.”


 “Producing Healthy Futures” Program at the Y

“The Y strives to create healthy environments and do so by providing healthier out-of-school time meals, focusing on consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables for those that are involved in preschool, afterschool programs, summer camps and the youth GED program,” Rascon explains.

As part of this effort, the Valley of the Sun YMCA’s “Producing Healthy Futures” program helps children and their families incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their diets.

The CDC reports that nine in 10 children do not eat enough vegetables, and six in 10 children do not eat enough fruit. “Over the next year, the grant will help the Valley of the Sun YMCA fully implement HEPA fruit and vegetable serving standards along with daily, age-appropriate activities and incentives to encourage children’s fruit and vegetable intake,” Rascon explains. “A wide variety of fruits and vegetables will be served family-style at snack and meal times and will supplement USDA-sponsored meals and snacks already served in order to improve their nutritional quality.”

In addition, the grant will fund one eight-session family nutrition class at each site that will teach healthy eating strategies with an emphasis on increasing fruit and vegetable consumption when there are tight schedules and limited budgets.

To learn more, visit www.ymcaoffers.com.



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