Childhood obesity is an epidemic that is quickly attacking our children. It is a serious medical condition once thought to only affect adults, that is now affecting children and adolescents. It occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age and height. As part of regular well-child check-up, the doctor calculates your child's body mass index (BMI) and determines where it falls on the national BMI-for-age growth chart. The BMI indicates if your child is overweight for his or her age and height. Using the growth chart, your doctor determines your child's percentile, meaning how your child compares with other children of the same sex and age. So, for example, you might be told that your child is in the 80th percentile. This means that compared with other children of the same sex and age, 80 percent have a lower BMI. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established cutoff points on these growth charts, to help identify overweight and obese children. A BMI-for-age between the 85th and 94th percentiles indicates that the child is overweight. And a BMI-for-age in the 95th percentile or above signifies obesity (Dalton 45). One of the best strategies to combat excess weight in your child is to improve the diet and exercise levels of your entire family. This helps protect the health of your child now and in the future. Unfortunately, we’re living at a time where everyone is always busy and on the go. This limits the amount of time that could be spent paying a little extra attention to the foods your children are consuming. We’re also in a time where children spend less time engaging in physical activities. Instead, they watch excessive amounts of television, and are constantly presented with advertisements promoting foods that are fried and high in fat and sugar. The fact that children can be exposed to such ads through television, might explain the strong relationships found between television viewing and obesity in children. (Dalton 53). Children also tend to play more videogames and/or computer games, and for longer periods of time. This sedentary lifestyle, which is beginning earlier than ever before, is causing children to gain weight because they are not burning calories through physical activity. This has proven to have severe adverse health affects. Poor diet and inactivity aren’t the only contributing factors of obesity. Genetics also plays a role. If your child comes from a family of overweight people, he or she may be genetically predisposed to put on excess weight, especially in an environment where high-calorie food is always available and physical activity isn't encouraged. Some children also overeat to cope with problems or to deal with emotions, such as stress or boredom. Socioeconomic factors can also play a part, since children from low-income backgrounds are at greater risk of becoming obese. Poverty and obesity often go hand in hand because low-income parents may lack the time and resources to make healthy eating and exercise a family priority (Dalton 58). Another contributing factor of obesity is school lunch. Most schools get failing grades when it comes to good nutrition, and cafeteria workers aren’t doing students any favors with the unhealthy food choices being offered. Too many cafeterias don't offer healthy choices, and school lunches are beginning to interfere with healthy lifestyles, and are adding to the obesity problem plaguing our children. This unhealthy lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits are leading to several serious health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start kids on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. (Fuhrman 16). These conditions often carry over and lead to an obese adulthood. Overweight children are at higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and other respiratory problems, sleep disorders , liver disease, early puberty or menarche, eating disorders, skin infections and even metabolic syndrome, a collection of health risks that increase the chance of developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes (Fuhrman 17).
As if the list of health problems resulting from obesity isn’t long enough, the social and emotional fallout that may occur, also can hurt your child. Being overweight can cause behavior and learning problems. Overweight children tend to have more anxiety and poorer social skills than normal-weight children have. At one extreme, these problems may lead to acting out and disrupting the classroom. At the other, they may cause social withdrawal. Stress and anxiety also interfere with learning. School-related anxiety can create a vicious cycle in which ever-growing worry fuels ever-declining academic performance. (Dalton 93). It can also cause low self-esteem and bullying. Children often tease or bully their overweight peers, who suffer a loss of self-esteem and an increased risk of depression as a result. Social isolation and low self-esteem create overwhelming feelings of hopelessness in some overweight children. When children lose hope that their lives will improve, they're well on the way to depression. A depressed child may lose interest in normal activities, sleep more than usual or cry a lot. Some depressed children hide their sadness and appear emotionally flat instead (Dalton 96). Either way, depression Wilkins 5
is as serious in children as in adults and shouldn’t go untreated.
Although the issue of childhood obesity is on the rise, it is important to remember to practice patience. Many overweight children grow into their extra pounds as they get taller. Realize, too, that whether your child is at risk of becoming overweight or currently at a healthy weight, you can take proactive measures to get or keep things on the right track. Obesity can be prevented by developing good eating habits at an early age. The attitude of children towards food and exercise is largely dependent on their experiences in the home and school environments. Remember to set a good example. Make sure you eat healthy foods and exercise regularly to maintain your weight (American Academy of Pediatrics 83). Then, invite your child to join you. Encourage a healthy lifestyle by highlighting the positive — the fun of playing outside or the variety of fresh fruit you can get year-round, for example. Emphasize the benefits of exercise apart from helping to manage their weight, for example, it makes their heart, lungs and other muscles stronger. If you foster your child's natural inclination to run around, explore and eat only when hungry (not out of boredom) a healthy weight should take care of itself.
Introduction to healthy foods in the home and appropriate teaching in schools can help children make healthy choices regarding food and exercise that can last a lifetime (Dalton 102). During infancy, parents should ensure that the child is receiving nutritious food in appropriate quantities. This can initially best be achieved through breastfeeding, because it protects the baby against unhealthy weight gain while providing many other benefits as well. If, however, a milk formula is used, it should not contain added starch or sugars (Fuhrman 9). During childhood and adolescence, parents should encourage Wilkins 6
physical activity. Not only will regular physical activity help your child lose weight and maintain that weight loss, it also has many other benefits. For example, if your child exercises regularly, they’ll have stronger bones, greater muscle strength, improved flexibility, more energy, improvements in self-confidence and self-esteem, many other benefits (American Academy of Pediatrics 124-125). At least thirty to sixty minutes of daily physical activity is recommended, as well as a well balanced diet which contains plenty of fruits and vegetables. Recommended serving sizes for fruits and vegetables can range between 3-5 servings daily depending on the child’s age (American Academy of Pediatrics 35). Encourage the consumption of energy-dense foods, foods that are rich in nutrients when compared to their calorie content. A good example of a nutrient-dense food is strawberries. One cup of strawberries contains only 150 calories, but 3.5g fiber, a massive 86mg of vitamin C and 26.9mcg of folate. (American Academy of Pediatrics 37).
Excessive television viewing, and drinks with added sugars should be discouraged, because high sugar contributes to weight gain . Just one extra glass of soda or fruit drinks per day can increase a child’s risk of becoming obese by 60% (Fuhrman 80). And, where possible, these unhealthy behaviors should be replaced by family activities and home-made meals, because eating out may also contribute to excess weight gain because food prepared outside the home is typically higher in fat and cholesterol than home-made meals. Studies have also shown possible links between food portion sizes and weight gain. We live in a culture in which many restaurants are renowned for supersizing virtually every item on their menu and parents often overestimate the amount of food that their children need. That kind of thinking can put a child on the fast track to obesity. Therefore, its Wilkins 7
important to be aware of the amount of food that is being provided to your child, as well as having knowledge of the recommended daily intakes of all food groups for their specific age group. Following the recommended dietary guidelines presented in MyPyramid can be extremely beneficial to the health of your child. Their diet should contain a variety of foods from the five food groups: grains, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, and meat/protein.
Aside from diet and nutrition there are other elements of a healthy lifestyle that can be used to treat or prevent childhood obesity. As mentioned before, your lifestyle choices greatly impact those of your children. Children look up to their parents and if you are setting a good example by eating appropriately, and exercising daily, your children have a better chance of doing the same. Also, be sure to schedule yearly well-child visits. Take your child to the doctor for well-child checkups at least once a year. During this visit, the doctor measures your child's height and weight and calculates his or her BMI. Increases in your child's BMI or in his or her percentile rank over one year, especially if your child is older than 4, is a possible sign that your child is at risk of becoming overweight (Dalton 101). It is also important that your child is getting enough sleep. Though it may seem odd to think of sleep as a preventative method to obesity, the theory is quite simple. Children ages seven to eighteen need at least nine hours of sleep each night. Younger children need even more. (Dalton 108). Research has showed that tired children are more like to eat excess foods in search of more energy to keep going. Being tired also reduces their likelihood of engaging in the recommended sixty minutes of physical activity. At least two studies have shown an association between number of hours of sleep and childhood Wilkins 8
obesity: less sleep, more body fat (American Academy of Pediatrics 156). A few suggestions to ensuring that your child is getting that recommended nine hours of sleep are: don’t allow the child to stay up late watching television or talking on the phone, try setting a consistent bedtime policy. This should include parents and children alike, to show that getting enough sleep and being healthy should not only be important to them, but that it’s important for you as well. Try to avoid having homework saved until after dinner, in doing so, they can push back their bedtime by having to stay up late to finish. And also, be realistic about what can be accomplished in a twenty-four hour period. Don’t over-schedule or over-commit to extracurricular activities which may interfere with sleep and family mealtimes (Dalton 67).
The prevalence of obesity in childhood continues to increase throughout the world. Currently, obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death, after cigarette smoking (Fuhrman 105). If our children continue to gain weight at the current rates, obesity will soon become the leading cause of death in the United States Prevention of obesity in children should be the first line of treatment. If obesity is not prevented, the cornerstone of treatment for childhood obesity is modification of dietary and exercise habits. Decreasing portion sizes, decreasing high-calorie food and drinks, and decreasing snacks are the most common dietary recommendations for obese children. A recent study done in a school setting, without parental involvement, showed that education of children about nutrition and the adverse effects of sweetened soft drinks on body weight resulted in improved food choices both at home and at school, with subsequent weight loss (Dalton 155-57). This study suggests that public health campaigns targeted at children may be an effective means of approaching this problem and, if initiated, could be the beginning of the end of the epidemic of obesity. Parents need to remember that children want to learn. But main lesson for parents would be that you have to cook for your kids, teach them about better food, and give them better food, because, if you don’t do that, as parents and caregivers, then the likes of fast food companies and soda companies are the ones telling our kids what to eat, and it's making them sick. And with your help, and the information that may be provided in schools, children can begin to develop healthy eating habits at an early age. Because as the saying goes “when you know better, you do better.”