MORE MILK, less junk food and seatbelts. It's that simple.
Hard to believe, but those are three keys to improving child and adolescent health in this country.
"Accidents and injuries are the leading killer of kids, and the leader in all these is the automobile," says Duane Alexander, the physician who directs the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
"Seventy percent of the kids who are killed are unrestrained," Alexander continues. "And that goes for little ones as well as teen-agers."
Alexander has released the results of a comprehensive federal review of the well-being of children, and there is much to be thankful for.
Numbers collected from 20 federal agencies show that American children are increasingly less likely to die during childhood, less likely to live in poverty, less likely to go hungry, and less likely to give birth during adolescence.
"All of these are 'best-evers,'" says Alexander of the statistical profile contained in the report "America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being."
"They are all good news."
But what frustrates Alexander are the child health indicators that are alarmingly bad, and the fact that they could be so easily corrected at the family dinner table.
"We have two major nutrition problems," he said. "Excess fat and calories and calcium deficiency."
Children of all ages are consuming too many calories from fat and they are not active enough to burn them off, says Alexander. The result is cardiovascular systems in kids that are as clogged as those in older adults.
And because kids are replacing milk with soft drinks, the greatest nutritional deficiency in this country is calcium, he says. The result: skeletal systems in kids that are as porous and weakened as those in older adults.
"We have gotten to the point in this country where adult health problems are showing up in kids, and the health problems of adults can be traced to their health behavior as children," says Alexander.
The figures for teen smoking, binge drinking and drug use have not improved, and that worries Alexander, too.
"The numbers on these problems are not going down. They are static and they have been for several years despite our best efforts," he says.
That these unhealthy behaviors have not responded to massive national education campaigns is troubling.
But we had the same worries and frustrations with teen sexual activity and those indicators are all moving in the right direction. In fact, there is statistical evidence that teens are actually choosing to delay sexual intercourse.
But there are a couple of health behaviors that carry long-term, life-threatening consequences, including heart disease, osteoporosis and diabetes. And these could be corrected by simple parental fiat:
"Finish your milk."
"Eat your vegetables."
And, "This car isn't going anywhere until everybody is buckled up."