We’ve seen this scene many times: Beer belly dad reaches for the stack of doughnuts only to have his hand slapped by his wife.

There are good reasons why middle-aged adults have to worry about high cholesterol, high blood pressure, expanding waistlines and high blood sugar levels – all precursors to diabetes and heart disease, the nation’s No.1 killer for men and women.

But these conditions are no longer limited to adults. Today, one in five US children are obese, according to the latest Centres for Disease Control & Prevention estimates. In fact, one in three low-income children will be overweight or obese before they reach their fifth birthday.

Obesity, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits, has given rise to children developing at least three of the most dangerous risk factors for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, large waistlines or high blood sugar levels.

Dr Anthony Rossi, a pediatric cardiologist specialising in critical care, didn’t worry about kids contracting Type 2 diabetes when he started his career. It didn’t exist in children.

Meal times may give parents an opportunity to talk to their children about healthy eating.

Making healthier food choices for children is important.

Now, Type 2 diabetes in children is one of his biggest battles. Yet parents don’t always see it. “When they’re 10 or 15 or 20, they’re not going to be dying from this, but when they’re 35, they might be,” he said. “We’re going to start seeing a whole bunch of premature deaths in young adults because they’ve been pre-diabetic or have had type 2 diabetes since they were teenagers.”

Rossi’s advice:

• Do not introduce a sugar diet early on.

• Stay away from sodas, sports drinks, “fruit juice” and cereals loaded with sugar.

• Read nutrition labels before buying a product.

• Stay away from enriched flour, which converts into sugar in the body. Examples: White flour, white rice, and white bread.

• Limit electronic devices; encourage group physical activity.

Get outside

Sarah Messiah, research associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, has spent decades looking at the effects of obesity. She’s a passionate proponent of prevention.

“This isn’t cancer, and it’s not HIV,” she said. “We have a cure; we know what causes this. Treatment is incredibly costly and it’s not realistic.”

Instead of putting children on strict diets and berating parents for what they’re feeding their children, Messiah advocates for affordable, community-based programmes that get kids moving, regardless of their socio-economic background, weight or gender.

Messiah analysed seven years of data from the Fit2Play program, a joint UM and Miami-Dade County initiative offering sports, outdoor games and fitness programmes at county parks. She’s found that even though 42% of the children who join the programme are overweight or obese, the longer they stay in the program, the healthier they become.

Messiah’s advice:

• Parents need to understand nutrition and wean themselves – and their children – off junk food. (Chips, pizza, soda, pastries, doughnuts, cookies, crackers, etc.)

• Get your kids in the habit of drinking water.

• Don’t put your kids or yourself on a calorie-restrictive diet. Change eating habits instead.

• Eat out less, and search for healthy options.

• Don’t buy products sweetened with corn syrup.

Lead by example

Audra Nelson, a dietitian working at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, often sees children as young as two to 17 years old suffering from being overweight or obesity.

Often, she says, the problem begins at home.

“Children will eat what you eat,” she said. “If you squished your nose at a fruit or a vegetable, your child is going to do the same thing.”

Nelson’s advice:

• Make healthy food fun for children to eat. Use a cookie cutter to cut apples into different shapes.

• Involve children in the cooking process. Children learn about food, and it is a bonding experience with the parents.

• Never put a child on a diet. You don’t want to stunt growth by restricting calories. Instead, change the family’s eating habits and get moving.

• Limit portions. A child should not be eating the same portions as an adult. – Miami Herald/Tribune News Service