By: Kasey Ahern
Framingham State University
During the last 30 years the number of overweight children has been on the rise. It is estimated that 18 percent of American children and adolescents are now dealing with the pressures of obesity. The average is estimated to one out of every five children. Children must deal with what pediatricians are now diagnosing as their greatest health concern. Children are eating unhealthier foods at earlier ages and preschoolers are now affected in the target zone. What factors contribute to childhood obesity? Are some children more inclined to weight gain than others? “Obesity is defined as the state of being well above what is one’s normal weight. One is considered obese if they are more than 20 percent over their ideal weight.” (Medicine Net) Parents and care givers are largely responsible for their kid’s food choices. Families often have both parents working or single- parent families may be working two jobs, they are rushing to activities and less and less time is being spent in the kitchen. More time is spent on the run or in the car. They grab dinner on-the-go and are choosing fast foods such as McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King and Papa Gino’s. Breakfast is often pulling up to the drive-through window and ordering munchkins at Dunkin Donuts. These meals are high in calories and sugar. Vegetables and fruits are becoming secondary. Children continually snack throughout the day and their choices include chips, cookies, cakes, candy, and high calorie soda drinks.
There is an imbalance between what a child takes in for food and drinks as opposed to what they actually need. This combine with their environment, their metabolism, physical activity, genes and their normal growth and development and you have the ingredients that contribute to weight gain. It is not just one thing it’s all of them combined that leads to obesity. (Education, Inc.) It is a proven fact that children who have overweight parents run a higher risk for also being obese. In their home environment the parents may exhibit unhealthy eating habits as well as little or no exercise. The children do not know better and think this is an acceptable way of life. Video games and watching TV are also on the rise. The ratio between sitting and being sedentary is beginning to take its toll on children. What is accepted as normal and what the children are allowed to watch is also not balanced. How many kids are going home from school and rushing to the computer or their favorite video game system even on the sunniest of days. You do not burn off calories sitting in front of a TV. Parents must be role models and exhibit an active life style. Poor eating habits contribute to unnecessary weight gain. Today everything is about quantity. How big are food portions becoming? We live in a society that has come to believe in “super size.” Super size the fries, and drinks. The hamburger becomes the double burger. Sugar sweetened drinks are very high in calories. Combine all these factors and what are we getting - fat kids! Many children run out of the house in the morning to catch a bus or to get to school and they skip breakfast. By the time lunch comes around they are so hungry they gobble down lunch and anything else they can find. If they wait to eat till after school then it is likely the children are eating non-energy, high sugar snacks, and sugar drinks. These children must participate in physical activities. They need to get off the couch and participate in an active lifestyle. Without physical activities children and adolescents will begin seeing more and more medical problems such as high blood pressure and limited bone strength. It makes sense that an active childhood will form good workout skills that enable children to continue on to be active in their adulthood. At least 30 minutes of physical movement in each day will help with weight loss. Schools need to become aware of childhood obesity. A recent study showed that in 1991, 42 percent of high school students received some type of physical education. In 2003 only one third or 28 percent of teenagers participated in gym class. (Education, Inc) Today so many parents work. Day care is more popular than ever before. Children under five are spending as much as 40 hours a week in child care facilities. These first teachers have a huge responsibility in teaching parents and children about healthy choices. They should send home a list of acceptable snacks and meals that are allowed at their center. Many day care institutions now provide the snacks for the children so everyone in their center is eating the same low in sugar snack. Pre-school teachers as well as all school- age teachers play an important role in the future of children with weight problems. They should provide daily activities both indoor and outdoor that promote exercise and active life styles. Nutrition should also be addressed and creative programs geared toward school aged children should be put into practice. It can be a fun learning experience with positive outcomes. Both the state and national government must get on board to install policies to increase nutritional awareness and create physical behaviors that will follow children throughout their life. Solutions are not easy but they are out there for the taking. First and fore most, the parent or caregiver must choose what foods and drinks will be in the house. With a little effort on everyone’s part, fruits and vegetables should be easily accessible. Parents need to select and plan meals and snacks that are low in sugar. Do not fill your child’s plate and do not insist they eat every bite or tempt them with dessert if they do. Parents have to be placed in a position that watches out for the welfare and health of their children. Schools are frantically trying to get involved with encouraging kids how to eat better as well as getting back to playing outside and reducing inactivity. One will start seeing changes in physical education. Some schools have begun to incorporate treadmills and weights. A student may now find climbing walls in their gyms. According to Tammy Austin, the executive director of administration for Topeka Unified School District, “this is the first generation of kids that will have shorter life spans than their parents. One in three children born in 2000 will have type two diabetes.”(Biles) Schools are trying to offer fresh fruits and vegetables and take out high sugar snacks out of the vending machines. They are also addressing how the food served to children is cooked and prepared. Classrooms are allowing children to try different fruits that they may not be exposed to at home. It is the hope that students like something and tell their parents to buy it when they go shopping. Health food services that cater to schools have been asked by nutritional experts to make drastic changes. They were told to use frozen vegetables and not canned products.
After reading about childhood obesity and how schools are trying to overcome this increasing concern, I conducted an interview with an elementary school teacher. I interviewed Ms. Erin Chisholm, a 25 year old native of Woburn Ma, and a fifth grade teacher in the Woburn School system. She teaches at the Clapp Elementary School. I asked her a series of questions and these are her answers. “Why is it important to tackle the issue of childhood obesity?” (Chisholm) “This generation of kids will be the first generation to not live as long as their parents. Obesity causes bullying, depression, and long lists of health problems. Kids today do not know what a healthy lifestyle is or why it is so important to be healthy. America is becoming known as the fat country. In order to keep up with other countries (regarding jobs, education, and medical issues,) we need to turn around our outlook on food. Kids feel like its ok to eat when you are board or sad, ect. When we educate kids about healthy living and show why it’s so important, hopefully obesity will decline. Technology has caused kids to be lazy and sedentary - they spend too much time playing video games and watching t.v. instead of playing outside.” “How is the Woburn School Department dealing with childhood obesity that has sky rocked in the last 30 years?” (Chisholm) “The Woburn School Department schedules every student to have gym at least once a week. They offer after- school programs at all the schools, and they have changed menus to incorporate healthy lunches on a daily basis. The school department also encourages kids to play outside more frequently. Health classes are promoting healthy eating and exercise. They are also teaching children how to read nutrition labels, what foods are healthy and what are non healthy. They show the kids what activities burn more calories.” “What do you do in your school classroom to promote a healthy lifestyle?” (Chisholm) “Whenever the kids bring in a healthy snack, they get to put a marble in a jar. When they fill the jar, they have a party. Everyone goes outside to play for recess.” “What types of activities do you do in the classroom to encourage exercise in the school and at home?” (Chisholm) Teach kids that exercise is important- we stretch and do jumping jacks to get going in the morning. Have healthy snacks.” “Do you think lower income families are more prone to unhealthy eating habits than higher income families?” (Chisholm) “Lower income families do not have the money to buy the more expensive healthy foods. It is much less expensive to buy the fatty foods or fast-food. They also don’t have the resources to sign their kids up for sports teams or any physical activities. The children go home to empty houses as well and sit in front of the t.v. with unhealthy snack foods. Obesity leads to other health problems such as diabetes and heart problems.”
Obesity is a problem that affects Americans at an alarming rate. It does not discriminate against age, race, or gender. Habits are formed in children almost as soon as they are born. Poor eating habits can result in problems as adults.
As a society we must act now to improve the eating habits of our children. We have talked about why child obesity is on the rise as well as the significant impact that obese children face emotionally and socially. Now I would like to conclude with some positive ideas to get families on the right track.
Anything that promotes your body moving is great. Children should be active for at least one hour a day. Start off with a few minutes and work up to longer periods of time. It doesn’t mean families need join a gym. They can play outdoor games, go for walks, swim, ride bikes, play street hockey. Anything that’s fun.
Children should have three healthy meals a day. Snacking between meals is also very important to give an energy boost as long as the snacks (like fruit) are not empty, high sugar, and high calorie munchies. Parents must start with babies to learn healthy eating habits. Be role models and plan meals ahead so you know exactly what you’re shopping for. Provide well balanced meals at home so children will know what to pick when they’re away from home. Eat meals together and sit down with your family. The obesity war will always be fought at home- parents have to make good choices.
"Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation ." Childhood Obesity. N.p., 2001. Web. <http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/child_obesity/>.
Biles, Jan . "CJOnline.com." Officials target childhood obesity. N.p., April 26, 2010 .
"Contributing Factors of Childhood Obesity." Education.com, Inc. . N.p., 2006 - 2010.
Chisholm, Erin. Intervew by Kasey Ahern. 3/31/11. Print. 29 Apr 2011
"WebMD, Inc." Medicine Net. N.p., 1996.