The Combat Against Childhood Obesity Begins

Fast food restaurants are on every corner, sugar and fat laden lattes are available at anytime of day, and pre-packaged foods are filled with sodium and other additives.

It’s no wonder our waist lines are expanding daily. While adults are usually able to make informed decisions about their eating and lifestyle choices, children may not be so lucky. Oftentimes they are not aware of how many calories they are actually ingesting or how little exercise they get in a day. As a result, many more children are overweight and obese than previous generations. Statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the rate of obesity in youth ages 12-19 has tripled since 1980, and obesity among children ages 6-11 increased from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 19.6 percent in 2008.

Typically a person’s body mass index (BMI) is used as a measurement to determine if a person is overweight or obese. According to the CDC, the BMI “is a measure of weight in relation of height that is used to measure weight status.” Since the information needed to measure BMI is relatively easy to obtain and is non-invasive, it is a commonly accepted way to determine if a person is overweight or obese. Unlike determining BMI for adults, a child’s (defined as aged 2-19) BMI is determined by the percentile a child falls in the plotted CDC growth charts. The percentiles are age and sex specific; it is determined this way because a child’s body varies by age and sex during the developmental years. Overweight is defined as having a BMI of above the 85th percentile and below the 95th percentile, and obesity is defined as having a BMI at or above the 95th percentile of the same age and sex.

Overweight and obese children also need to worry about their future since they are more likely to be obese and overweight as adults. A study reported by the CDC found that 80 percent of overweight 10-15 year olds were obese by age 25. Another study found that 25 percent of overweight adults were overweight as children. Being an overweight or obese child or adult comes with a many risk factors for various health concerns.

Overweight and obese children have a higher risk for developing cardiovascular diseases, which includes high cholesterol and blood pressure. A CDC study found that 70 percent of obese 5-17 year olds have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and 39 percent of the same age range have two or more risk factors. Additionally, obese and overweight youth have a higher risk for sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, and psychological problems due to social stigma and low self-esteem. And since overweight youth are likely to become overweight adults, they will have a higher chance for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke during their adult years.

Why are so many of our children overweight and obese? Many may point to genetics; however, that usually is not the only contributing factor in children. Scientists do agree that rare genetic conditions can cause rapid weight gain and retention among children; however, such conditions only affect a small portion of overweight children. Experts agree that typically the prevalence of overweight and obese children is caused by a combination of genetics, behavioral, and environmental factors.

Consuming high calorie and sugar diets are commonly thought to be a major contributing factor of childhood obesity. In this day of super sizes and convenience foods, children are consuming many more calories than previous generations. Many children are eating dinners not prepared at home and snacking on calorie-dense ‘energy’ bars. Also, many kids are consuming vast quantities of sugary drinks, like soda, sport drinks, and lattes. Many kids may not even notice the amount of calories consumed in liquid-form and, therefore, do not make caloric compensations during meal-times. The consumption of high calorie drinks are usually less satiating than snacking, which may lead children to consume more food during a meal.

Lack of physical activity is also a factor in why our youth is overweight. Consuming large quantities of calories require the burning of a large amount of calories, which is why physical activity is so important in combating obesity. Many children do not get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise each day. The amount of physical activity done in schools has dropped in recent years. In 1991, 42 percent of adolescents participated in a school sponsored physical education program, but only 28 percent of adolescents participated in such a program in 2003. Currently less than 28 percent of schools in the nation meet the recommended physical activity. At home, kids are leading more sedentary lifestyles and not getting enough exercise. A study reported by the CDC found that children ages 8-18 watch TV, videos, and DVDs a little more than 3 hours each day. Multiple studies have found a direct relationship between the number of hours spent watching TV and obesity. The link between TV watching and obesity is thought to be caused by lack of exercise and excessive snacking on junk food (due to being negatively influence by ads), all of which lead to a lower metabolic rate among the children.

Exercise is not only helpful for weight loss (or maintenance), it also lowers blood pressure and increases bone strength.

Since we are aware of what contributes to children becoming overweight and obese, we, as a population, have the power to stop it. Parents, child care providers, school employees (including teachers), and communities are all jointly responsible in teaching the youth healthy eating and lifestyle habits.

A child’s interactions with his/her parents can influence eating and exercise behaviours, and children are likely to develop similar habits as their parents. Building the foundation for a healthy lifestyle always starts at home.

When parents are not around, it then becomes the responsibility of child care providers and schools. Since approximately 80 percent of children 5 years and younger who have working mothers are enrolled in child care, the providers also have a responsibility to teach healthy eating and lifestyle habits. Day cares are an ideal place for children to develop a foundation of healthy habits. All children older than 5 years of age spend a majority of their day in school, and school employees and teachers have the responsibility to help youth to continue the development of healthy choices. Established physical education classes and healthy food options in the cafeteria and vending machines are important in helping adolescents make and keep healthy habits.

A child’s community structure also helps combat against childhood obesity. Children who have accessibility to nearby playgrounds, bike paths, and parks are more likely to use those resources and become active. Kids who are not able to safely ride bikes or walk to areas in their surrounding neighborhoods will be discouraged and continue to lead sedentary lifestyles. Community activities, like fun runs and family park days also help children get the physical activity they need. The Junior League of Peoria is sponsoring the Pair Up for Health race on Saturday, June 12. This race is intended to raise awareness about childhood obesity and to give families an opportunity to be active together. The event is a trail run (or walk) held at Wildlife Prairie State park that includes hills, obstacles, hurdles, stairs, and a slide. The distance will be three to four miles (the race course is still being finalized). Registration is now open and the entire family is invited.

In addition to immediate communities, children need to have access to healthy food. Pre-packaged and convenience foods are usually filled with fat and sodium. Last month Michelle Obama called on major food manufacturers to cut down the amount of sodium and sugar in their products. A week later many of the major companies announced plans to make their foods healthier. PepsiCo announced it planned to cut the amount of sodium in its key brands by 25 percent in the next five years. In the next ten years, the company is planning to cut the amount of sugar in a serving by 25 percent and saturated fat in a serving by 15 percent. Kraft Foods, Inc. announced it is cutting the amount of salt by ten percent over two years, and ConAgra Foods, Inc. and Campbell Soup also announced plans to decrease the amount of sodium in products.

To ultimately combat childhood obesity, all aspects of a child’s environment must continually work together to provide a support structure that nurtures healthy eating habits and lifestyle choices.

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