Every child needs to learn the ABCs of life. When it comes to establishing healthy habits, you can teach them how to “ABCDE” (Act Boldly to Change Diet and Exercise).

Why is this important?

Good nutrition and plenty of exercise are the building blocks for strong growth, healthy development and lifelong wellbeing for children.

These days, too many children are not receiving the proper nutrition or enough exercise:

  • They are not eating enough — an estimated 16 to 17 million children live in homes where they are at risk of going hungry (approximately one in six households).

  • They are not eating enough healthy food — an estimated one in three children are overweight and about one in six (ages six to 17) are obese.

  • They are not getting enough exercise — only 30 percent of children (aged six to 17) participated in 20 minutes plus of vigorous physical activity on a daily basis. Children need to get 60 minutes of exercise on a daily basis.

About A.B.C.D.E.

What are the benefits of good nutrition and daily exercise for kids?

Mental and behavioral benefits

Good nutrition is essential to healthy brain development in children which is, of course, critical to learning.

Children who exercise regularly and eat healthily are likely to:

  • perform better academically

  • feel better about themselves, their bodies and their abilities

  • cope with stress and regulate their emotions better

  • avoid feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.

Establishing healthy eating and exercise habits early in life can lead to long term healthy behavior in adulthood.

Physical benefits
  • Children need a wide variety of nutrients (e.g., protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, minerals and vitamins) to assist in their daily growth and development and to protect them from childhood illnesses.

  • Daily exercise also helps children to build stronger muscles and bones and limit excess body fat.

  • Healthy eating also cuts down on risk for cavities, eating disorders and unhealthy weight control behaviors (i.e., fasting, skipping meals, eating very little food, vomiting, using diet pills, laxatives or diuretics), malnutrition and iron deficiency.

  • Healthy eating and consistent physical activity help to prevent chronic illnesses that appear in adulthood associated with obesity, e.g., heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and several forms of cancer.

What are the effects of different settings on the eating and exercise habits of kids?

In the home
  • Lack of access to healthy, wholesome foods and inadequate physical activity contributes to kids becoming overweight and not getting adequate nutrition for their growth and development. Children need at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity in the form of physical play or sports.

  • Hunger — kids who do not get enough to eat are at risk of developing chronic health conditions, behavioral problems, academic struggles, anxiety, depression and even obesity especially if they only have access to poor quality processed food.

  • Unhealthy weight control behaviors have been found to co-occur with obesity. Many adolescents, particularly teenage girls, have body image concerns and engage in these behaviors threatening both their physical and mental health.

  • Media effects from the following: 

  • Food advertising targeted at children is dominated by commercials for unhealthy food (e.g., candy, sugary cereals, sugary beverages, processed snack foods, fast food restaurants). Food advertising is pervasive and can be found on multiple media platforms (TV, web and even embedded in computer games).

  • Advertising by other industries often objectifies girls and women, contributing to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.

  • Television viewing is linked to childhood obesity because it displaces physical activity, increases snacking behavior while watching, exposes kids to potentially harmful advertising and reduces their resting metabolism.

At school
  • Risks to academic achievement — result from children not getting adequate nutrition and physical activity. Hunger can be particularly damaging to children’s progress in school and cognitive development overall.

  • Overabundance of unhealthy foods — too many schools offer poor nutritional choices in the form of unhealthy school lunches or even vending machines filled with candy, processed snacks and sugary beverages.

  • Lack of opportunities for physical activity — many schools have scaled back requirements for a daily recess and do not prioritize physical education opportunities for children at every age.

  • Peer behaviors — peers can serve as remarkably powerful role models for children and may share their unhealthy eating or exercise habits with them.

  • Stigma of being overweight — can lead to social and psychological distress (e.g., depression, low self esteem). Bullying and teasing from peers can be particularly damaging and teachers and school staff may attribute less desirable personality characteristics to obese youth and their families.

In the neighborhood
  • Overabundance of unhealthy foods – there are a growing number of communities called “food deserts” where supermarkets and grocery stores are scarce or charge higher prices for healthy foods than processed foods. In addition, many underserved communities are populated with fast food restaurants that are often located near schools and playgrounds.

  • The built environment – lack of adequate and safe parks, bike lanes, playgrounds, recreational facilities, or walkways can restrict opportunities for children and teens to get exercise.

Why are you critical to establishing healthy behaviors in your kids?

You are role models
  • Children are instinctively primed to imitate their parents and caregivers. They are incredibly sensitive to the messages that are sent about eating and exercise. You exert the most influence on your children’s behavior and can model healthy attitudes and habits toward food and physical activity that persist as they grow up.

You are gatekeepers
  • Parents and caregivers control the types of food children have access to in the home and can maximize access to healthy, wholesome foods (fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy).

  • You can also monitor children’s diet, exercise, and limit media consumption (TV/video watching, web surfing and videogames).

 You are taste-setters
  • Parents and caregivers significantly influence the likes and dislikes that children attach to certain foods. These influences can last a lifetime. Each of us can probably remember a favorite home cooked meal from our childhood. There is even research that suggests that this begins in infancy; children who are breastfed may be exposed to different flavors in their mother’s breast milk than the sugars and fats in infant formula. Breastfeeding may provide protection from the development of obesity.

  • Eating with your children at regular family mealtimes can help establish positive nutrition habits and healthy weights for children.

You are advocates
  • Parents and caregivers can push local leaders to introduce affordable transportation (e.g., bus or shuttle lines) to supermarkets or grocery stores if there are none in their communities.

  • You can call for the construction of parks or playgrounds and restriction of fast food places in your neighborhood.

  • You can push school administrators to introduce after-school programs that incorporate physical activity or nutrition education, healthier school lunches, and policies that eliminate the use of vending machines on school grounds.

  • You along with members of your community can volunteer to coach afterschool sports.


American Psychological Association (2008). Retrieved from Shared risk factors for youth obesity and disordered eating. Washington, D.C.: Author.

American Psychological Association (2009). Retrieved from APA resolution on promotion of healthy active lifestyles and prevention of obesity and unhealthy weight control behaviors in children and youth. Washington, D.C.: Author.

American Psychological Association (2009). Retrieved from Promoting healthy behaviors to prevent obesity and unhealthy weight control in our youth. Washington, D.C.: Author.

American Psychological Association (2010). Retrieved from How parents can confront childhood obesity by fostering environmental change in their communities, Washington, D.C.: Author.

Berg, J. (2010). Retrieved from Feeding opportunity: Ending child hunger furthers the goal of cutting U.S. poverty in half over the next decade (PDF, 877KB). Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress.

Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (2007). Retrieved from 2007 national survey of children's health. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

Chriqui, J. F., Schneider, L., Chaloupka, F. J., Ide, K., & Pugach, O. (2009). Local wellness policies: Assessing school district strategies for improving children’s health. School years 2006-07 and 2007-08 (PDF, 6.4MB). Retrieved from Chicago, IL: Bridging the Gap Program, Health Policy Center, Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago.

Ganley, T., & Sherman, C. (2000). Exercise and children’s health: A little counseling can pay lasting dividends. The Physician and Sportsmedicine Journal, 28(2), 85-92.

Goldfield, G. S., Paluch, R., Keniray, K., Hadjiyannakis, S., Lumb, A. B., & Adamo, K. (2006). Effects of breastfeeding on weight changes in family-based pediatric obesity treatment. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 27(2), 93-97.

Hadley, A., Hair, E. C., & Dreisbach, N. (2010). Retrieved from What works for the prevention and treatment of obesity among children: Lessons from experimental evaluations of programs and interventions (PDF, 352KB). Washington, DC: Child Trends.

Ogden, C. L., Carroll, M., Curtin, L., Lamb, M., & Flegal, K. (2010). Prevalence of high body mass index in US children and adolescents 2007-2008. Journal of American Medical Association, 303(3), 242-249.

Robinson, T. N. (2001). Television viewing and childhood obesity. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 48(4), 1017-1025.

White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity (2010). Retrieved from Solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation (PDF, 3.3MB). Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President of the United States.

Tips for A.B.C.D.E.

As parents and caregivers, you are critical to establishing the necessary and lifelong habits of healthy eating and exercise in children.

Act boldly as a

  • Role model — Make sure to eat healthy, wholesome foods and get plenty of exercise yourself. Be consistent; this should be a permanent part of your lifestyle. Set a good example.

  • Gatekeeper — you have the power to monitor and control what your kids eat, what exercise they get, and how much time they spend watching TV, surfing the web, or playing videogames. You're in charge. 

  • Taste-setter — you can influence your kids’ appreciation for the flavors of healthy food very early on, which can last them into adulthood. Start them off right. 

  • Advocate — use your voice to push for positive changes in child care, schools and your communities that facilitate healthy eating and exercise. They have the right to be healthy.

Change their diet

  • Use healthy, wholesome foods (i.e., fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy) that are nutrient-dense when cooking family meals or preparing snacks. Limit consumption of empty calories in the form of sugary, processed, and fast foods.

  • Use Go, Slow, Whoa as a guide.

    • Go foods — low in fat, sugar and calories and nutrient-dense, e.g., fruits and vegetables. Great to eat anytime. 

    • Slow foods — higher in fat, added sugar and calories, e.g., white bread, pancakes, fruit canned in syrup. Should be eaten less often. 

    • Whoa foods — very high in fat, added sugar and calories while low in nutrients, e.g., candy, soda, French fries. Eat once in a while in small portions.

  • Make sure that calorie intake and portion sizes are matched to your child’s age and activity level.

  • Find ways to make over family favorites by using healthier ingredients (e.g., more veggies, less fat) or healthier methods of cooking (e.g., grilling or baking instead of frying).

  • Connect kids to their food by continually introducing them to new types of healthy food and allowing them to participate in food shopping and preparation so that they can understand what goes into their meals and maintain healthy cooking habits as they grow up.

  • Protect the time you eat with your kids — children who dine at regular family mealtimes get better nutrition, perform better in school and bond better with their families.

  • Change their media diet — limit TV time to one to two hours of quality programming per day, monitor internet use and make sure they avoid snacking during TV time.

Change their exercise routine

  • Make time to play or be active with your kids — set aside 60 minutes everyday to play catch; go for a walk, jog, bike ride or swim; or play tag.

  • Make sure your kids get enough activity to balance the calories that they take in.

  • Give them gifts that encourage activity — e.g., sporting equipment, active games or enroll them in community sports teams.

  • Walk as much as possible — e.g., walk with your kids to school, after dinner, instead of watching TV.

  • Move around at home with your kids — e.g., yard work, gardening or work around the house.

Grocery checklist
  • Fruits and vegetables — e.g., apples, bananas, oranges, peaches, strawberries, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, eggplant, spinach 

  • Whole grains — e.g., brown rice, oatmeal, whole wheat bread or pasta

  • Lean proteins — e.g., chicken breast, turkey, fish, lean cuts of beef or pork, beans and lentils 

  • Low or non-fat dairy — e.g., low-fat or skim milk, yogurt and cheese 

  • Healthy fats — get your fats from fish, nuts, or olive, soybean, or canola oils 

  • Beverages — e.g., plenty of water, low or non-fat milk, fresh juice, tea. Limit soda, sweetened juices and sugary iced tea. 

  • Read food labels to avoid high amounts of sugar, fat and sodium

Physical activity checklist
  • Get your kids 60 minutes play/exercise each day. 

  • Take a walk, jog, bike ride, swim with them. 

  • Take them to the local park, recreation center or play in the backyard. 

  • Let them watch only one to two hours of quality TV each day.