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DASH diet helps teen girls battle the bulge

It's the diet to follow if you have high blood pressure. The DASH diet - plentiful in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains - has been proven to lower blood pressure quickly and dramatically in adults with mild to moderate hypertension. (DASH stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension.)

It can also curb excess weight gain in teenage girls according to a study published Tuesday. Girls whose diets most closely resembled the DASH diet had the lowest BMIs (body mass index) at the end of the 10-year study.

The study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, is one of the few to investigate the link between diet patterns and weight gain in kids.

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Researchers gathered data on 2,237 U.S. girls, aged 9, and followed them for 10 years. Detailed diet information was collected annually and each participant was given a score indicating how closely their diet matched DASH diet guidelines.

Girls with higher DASH scores had a higher average intake of each DASH food group (whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean meats, low-fat dairy and nuts, seeds and legumes). Girls with the highest DASH scores had the smallest gains in BMI during the study, and the lowest BMIs when they were 19.

On the other hand, girls with the lowest DASH scores had an average BMI greater than the cut-off that indicates being overweight.

In particular, a lower intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products (2-per-cent milk fat or less) were notably and directly related to excess weight gain during adolescence.

Fruit, vegetables and whole grains may result in less weight gain through their higher fibre content and, as a result, their ability to promote a feeling of fullness. Scientists also speculate that certain proteins in dairy products help regulate appetite and food intake.

It's estimated that 29 per cent of Canadian adolescents, aged 12 to 17, are overweight or obese, a number that's doubled since 1979. Excess weight during childhood leads to many health problems and is even associated with premature death as an adult.

The following strategies can help encourage healthy eating habits in teenagers and prevent them from becoming overweight.

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Determine BMI-for-age

This calculation takes into account that kids' bodies are growing. BMI is calculated and plotted on a growth chart to obtain a percentile ranking. This indicates the relative position of your child's BMI number among children of the same sex and age.

The BMI percentile indicates whether your child is underweight, at a healthy weight, overweight or obese. (Google "child and teen BMI calculator".)

BMI-for-age should be measured at annual medical checkups to monitor weight over time. It also provides an opportunity for doctors to talk to teens about healthy eating and exercise.

Adopt the DASH diet

Have the whole family eat a DASH-style diet. Teens should aim for three to four servings of low-fat dairy products (e.g. one cup milk, ¾ cup yogurt), four servings of vegetables (e.g. ½ cup cooked or raw vegetables, one cup salad greens) and four servings of fruit each day (e.g. 1 medium sized fruit, ½ cup cut-up fruit).

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Most often, choose 100-per-cent whole grain foods instead of refined (white) grain products. Nuts, seeds and/or legumes should be eaten four times a week. Limit intake of added fats and sweets.

Keep a food diary

A daily journal can help you and your teen identify eating patterns and problem foods that encourage excess weight gain. Use it also to track the number of daily servings of key DASH food groups - fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.

A food diary should record meal and snack times, foods eaten and portion sizes along with daily exercise such as walking, bike riding, gym class, team sports and other workouts.

Eliminate sugary drinks

Soft drinks, fruit drinks, iced tea, sports drinks and the like provide extra calories without nutrition. And they don't promote satiety. Unlike when we eat solid food, our brain doesn't register that full feeling from liquid calories. Replace sugary drinks with low-fat milk or water.

Don't skip meals

Growing teenagers need to eat four to five times a day (three meals plus snacks) to fuel brain cells and muscles. Eating at regular intervals helps prevent kids from becoming overly hungry and overeating.

Eat more meals prepared at home

Among teens, eating more meals away from home is linked to being overweight. Research also suggests that the more often teenagers report eating a "family dinner," the less likely they are to be overweight.

Don't ban treats

Teens trying to lose weight should be allowed to indulge in their favourite treat once a week. A weekly splurge helps kids stick to a healthy eating plan because they won't feel deprived.

Avoid dieting

If your teen is overweight, a restrictive diet is not the solution. A number of studies have found that kids who "diet" end up gaining more weight over time than kids who don't diet. A diet that's too low calories can also trigger bingeing, not to mention rob teens of energy and nutrients needed for growth.

The best approach: Make healthy eating - and exercise - a family affair rather than setting one child apart because of weight. If you feel your child would benefit from a structured healthy eating plan, consider working with a registered dietitian.

Limit screen time

Too much time spent in front of a screen encourages a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits. Kids should spend no more than one to two hours a day watching television, playing video games or surfing the Internet.

Children and teenagers should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Help your child get fit by planning to work out together a few times a week.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. .

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