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Childhood Obesity

Childhood Obesity

Who watched “One Nation Overweight” on CNBC this week?  I think I had seen parts of it last year…some was familiar and some was not.  You can watch it on hulu here or on CNBC here.

There were lots of remarkable parts…did you notice the number of overweight or obese doctors, nurses, and orderlies in the section about bariatric surgery?  That shows what it means that 2/3 of American adults are either overweight or obese. Even the people who work in healthcare have the same struggles.  But, as a parent the most unsettling piece was on childhood obesity here.

On Saturday, we went to the Oklahoma City Zoo with the girls.  I guess I am just becoming more observant, but I really noticed the numbers of overweight and obese children that were there.  For some reason, the numbers seemed to be higher than what I see around my girls’ elementary school.

We all have heard that the rate of childhood obesity in the U.S. has been increasing over the years.  Federal government data  shows:

  • Approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese. Another significant chunk is “just overweight”.
  • Since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled.
  • There are significant racial, ethnic and socio-economic disparities in obesity prevalence among U.S. children and adolescents.

For example, back when I was a “kid” in the late 1970’s the rate of obesity among 6-11 year old was 6.5%. In 2007-2008, the rate in this same age group was 19.6% according to the data here.

childhood obesity graph

While I was an overweight teen and am an obese adult, I was not either as a child.  In Oklahoma, a state where over 30% of adults are obese and thus I “fit right in”, I wonder how many of them were a “healthy weight” as children…probably most.  The fact that so many American kids are now starting out overweight or obese really scares me about what their health futures will be.  It is predicted that this generation of children is the first that will have a shorter lifespan than their parents and a lot of that is attributable to weight-related health problems.

For more on the data, there is a new CDC report “Children’s Food Environment State
Indicator Report, 2011” available here  and there is also some interesting information here.

So, why do we care as parents and as a society?  Well, as parents, I would hope that we would all care about the health and happiness of our kids.  I think that almost all parents care, they just don’t realize how inundated they and their kids are by food marketing and how surrounded they are by a poor food environment from which to make choices.  As a society, we will be paying for the medical costs of this trend for years to come.  So, even if you and your kids are a healthy weight, you need to care
about their friends and classmates, especially if they are reliant on the government through various social programs to provide them with much of their food.

So, what are the problems that childhood obesity can cause?  Some of them are the same as adult obesity, mainly health issues, etc.  But, some are more critical to kids and teens.  Bullying is a big threat when you are overweight or obese.  I recently witnessed some elementary-age boys taunting a girl in their class that is overweight.  They were calling her “fat girl” and she was in tears.  The boys were punished for their behavior by the teacher, but the girl’s self-esteem was already affected by those hurtful words.  As an overweight adult myself, I know how embarrassing it can be when you are singled out because of your weight; it must be so much worse as a kid that is trying to just “fit in”.

What are the causes of this recent trend in children?  Kids’ daily environments – their schools, childcare facilities, churches, and their local communities influence the healthfulness of their diets.   There is direct marketing to children of food items, misleading marketing claims about healthiness of food made to parents, access to and affordability of healthy foods in the school and local community, increased consumption of soda and juice by kids (the leading source of added sugar among children is sugar-sweetened drinks) and less exercise in the daily life of kids.

What are some things we can do as parents and more globally as a society to combat it?  Providing all children with healthy food environments is key to reaching the public health goals of reducing childhood obesity and improving nutrition.  So we should:

  • Reduce the amount of marketing that kids are exposed to.  This is not going to be done voluntarily by companies.  It is only going to be achieved through
    regulations similar to those that keep cigarette and hard liquor ads off TV.  Yes, I am a political liberal, but do you really think that any of the companies advertising soda, fitness drinks, candy, potato chips, pizza and burgers to kids are going to stop on their own because they really care about kids?
  • Reduce kid’s screen time.  There is a correlation between the amount of time kids spend watching TV, playing video games, surfing the web, etc. and being overweight.  Yes, having a statistician husband, I know that correlation does not equal causation, but I am going to go out on a limb and say that kids sitting in front of a TV are not getting as much physical activity as those outside playing.  Also, from a health perspective, it is not a wise thing for a kid to have a TV in his or her bedroom.
  • Build physical activity into everyday routines. Back when I was a kid, it was common for kids to walk or bike to school. When we got home from school we would head off on our own and play outside with other kids all over the neighborhood.  Now, most children are driven to school, whether by a parent or on a school bus. For some kids school is too far away and parents do have justifiable safety concerns about kids walking and biking on their own or playing outside unsupervised.  So, parents have to find ways of adding activity to their kid’s day.  Believe me, I know this is hard to do with working busy parents, but it has to be a priority.  A family walk or bike ride several times a week is a great way to give everyone in the family some exercise and also spend some time together. If the weather is bad, take a page out of the older generation’s
    handbook and walk around the mall.  🙂
  • Ensure that the school breakfast and lunch programs reduce their reliance on processed foods and increase the amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables available to kids.  I posted recently about the lunch offerings in our local school cafeteria run by Sodexo.  To see lots more examples of what kids are really being served, head to the Fed Up with School Lunch blog .  We as a society have to start caring enough to spend more money on school food. Whenever I see criticism of school menus online, there is always a vocal contingent that claims it is elitist to care about food quality when there are hungry kids whose only food all day may be what they eat at school.  To them I say: If that is their only food,
    then it REALLY needs to be healthy food heavy on the fresh fruits and veggies,
    not processed chicken nuggets, white bread and processed cheese sandwiches, rice krispy treats, and chocolate milk. As one blogger recently called it “Carnival Food”.  In the long run, I believe that giving less fortunate kids a good nutritional start in life will benefit us all through reduced medical and other costs in the future.  Also, well-fed kids think better and get more out of school.  So, they will be a greater asset to our society.
  • Eat meals together as a family. Parents have tremendous influence on children’s food behaviors. Eating meals together as a family has many positive effects on children, including the development of healthy eating habits and maintaining a healthy weight. Also, foods prepared at home are likely to be more nutritious than foods prepared away from home.

I hope I have not offended anyone.  As someone who has struggled with her own  weight for years, my hope is this is something that our kids would not have to deal with.  And it is up to us to do our job as “their village” to help them.  So, what are your thoughts on childhood obesity and what do you think we can do to help our kids?

–Stacey

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About feedingmytribe

Mom to four 10-year-olds. Trying to find my way through the confusing world of food and nutrition to provide my girls with a healthy start in life.

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