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At her favorite fast food restaurant, Latasha Smith would always order a Whopper Jr. and french fries.

At the local pizzeria, "an order of barbecued chicken wings -- mild, please," would be the 10-year-old's mantra.

A fifth-grader in the Gifted and Talented program at Campus West, Latasha excelled in the classroom rather than on the playground, exercising her brain instead of her body.

"She was not a child who was active," said Patricia Evert, Latasha's mother. "I tried to teach her that eating healthy was more healthy. I knew as an adult what I needed to do, but to explain to a child what she needed is another matter. When it comes to children and weight, you need help."

Obesity -- a growing nutritional concern among young people from 6 to 17 -- is a symptom of a sedentary society, one more familiar with a mouse pad than a gym mat, according to one local psychologist. Children, it seems, readily recognize overeating as a pound adder, but few identify lack of exercise as a factor in obesity.

"Children and diet don't mix," said Dr. Jennifer Batterman-Faunce, who specializes in child and adolescent psychology. "You need to stress activity and healthy eating rather than dieting and counting calories.

"Parents get very anxious and concerned and worried because they see the social effect on the children's self-esteem and want to fix it right away," Dr. Batterman-Faunce said.

Enrolling in a weight-control program that combines exercise, psychology and nutrition can make a difference for both child and parent.

Last spring, Latasha joined a 10-week program called Family Fitness Matters offered through Daemen College and the Elmwood Health Center.

For her, the "three R's" have taken on new meaning.

"Now I feel like running, Rollerblading and riding my bike," said Latasha, who now chooses a veggie burger and baked chicken over a Whopper Jr. and barbecued wings.

"Instead of grabbing a whole bag of potato chips, I just grab a few."

For children, weight control is a major self-esteem issue, said physical therapist Mary Jean Taylor, who helped launch the weight-control program.

"It takes an emotional toll on the child, and frequently the parents also," she explained.

Parents and their children exercise side by side during the 40-minute sessions, conducted twice weekly in the family fitness program. (Similar programs offered at the Northeast YMCA and the Jewish Community Center also carry the parent-child team theme.)

There is no competition, a factor that tends to keep overweight children from participating in organized athletics such as team soccer, baseball or gymnastics.

"A lot of the kids feel uncomfortable because they are really not agile enough to be successful," said Ms. Taylor, an associate professor at Daemen. Children and their parents instead exercise aerobically and participate in stretching and strength conditioning routines.

Thirteen-year-old William C. Smith (no relation to Latasha) never dreamed of playing for the football Jacks of North Tonawanda High School. He didn't run fast enough or far enough.

"Will has been overweight all of his life," acknowledged Christine C. Smith, who recalled nagging her son to join a weight-control program.

"He hemmed and hawed, and he finally agreed. He thought he would be the only boy, but he wasn't."

"I used to love Big Macs," Will said. "Now I haven't had one in a couple of months."

Nutrition -- and the changing of unhealthy habits -- is a big part of any weight-control program.

"It's fun to go out and eat," said Dr. Gary A. Styn, "but you don't always know what you are eating. Read the labels. Ask questions. You really are what you eat."

Styn, a program lecturer on health and food issues, said fried food is a major stumbling block for the nutritionally challenged. Take french fries, for instance.

"You are ruining a good source of carbohydrates," Styn said. "Potatoes are complex carbohydrates, but soak them in fat and add some salt, and it may lead to problems in the future."

Or cheesecake. "It's all saturated fat," he said. "It's not that cheesecake is bad. These things are not going to send you to hell, but you must balance your choices."

Fats, carbohydrates, protein. The formula is easy, Styn said. Dedication and motivation is the hard part.

"Being in a group was very helpful with other children with the same type of problem," recalled Ms. Evert, Latasha's mother. "Mostly with kids, seeing is believing."

The actions of parents and guardians are important in determining the food behaviors of their children.

According to a survey conducted by the International Food Information Council, between-meal snacking and parents' food preferences influence their children. In addition, parental involvement in school-based nutritional education programs seem to be effective in initiating behavior change.

The key to any weight control program, however, is support.

"It's incredibly important not to be critical," said Dr. Batterman-Faunce.

"Don't make weight such an enormous issue that it becomes the overriding interaction. Parents need to be supportive, and encourage children to form their own niche, whether it be music or sports.

"The bodies of pre-teens go through periods where they are rounder," she added. "Just because you have a child who is overweight does not mean they will remain that way."

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