Reducing the Risk of Childhood Obesity

In recent years there has been an alarming increase in obesity in children, even among the youngest. Obesity in children is determined by a health care provider calculating the Body Mass Index (BMI), which is a weight to height measure. Recent national statistics show that approximately 20% of 2 to 5 year-old children are obese. This percentage increases to 30% for children 6 to 11 and 31% for children 12 to 19.

Statistics released by the Coalition on Children and Weight in San Diego show that only 1% of children meet national recommendations for the Food Guide Pyramid, approximately 84% of young children eat too much fat, better than 50% eat less than one serving of fruit a day, and 29% eat less than one serving of non-fried vegetables a day. Thirteen to eighteen year-olds drink twice as much sodas as milk, which provides about 9% of their daily caloric intake. Sodas alone increase the amount of sugar intake since one 12 ounce can of soda contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar.

Obese children miss school significantly more than other children. They have health problems, such as diabetes type II, sleep apnea, and elevated cholesterol at significantly higher percentages than non-obese children. For example, type II diabetes (adult-type) has increased in children 9 to 19 years of age from 2% to 40% of new cases over the past 20 years. About one in four obese children will develop type II diabetes. Nutrition and exercise alone could reduce the incidence of type II diabetes in children by as much as 80%.

In addition to nutrition, children are more inactive than ever before. According to a recent article in Pediatrics, more than 25% of children report watching at least 4 hours of TV a day. Another research study about school physical education reported that the number of students participating in a daily physical education class has declined from 42% in the early 1990s to 27% by the late 90s.

According to John Reilly, a professor at Glasgow in England who has studied activities in children, activity levels have decreased for all ages. According to Reilly, 25 years ago 3 year-olds were eating about 25% more than 3 year-olds today, but physical activity has dropped considerably. He found that 3 year-old children spend only about 20 minutes a day in moderate or vigorous physical activity.

Researchers have linked declining physical activity in young children with conduct disorders, inattention, and even reduced brain development. Reduced physical activity and poor nutrition combine to be main factors in obesity.

Not only is obesity a health risk for children, it is also related to social and emotional problems. Obesity can affect the development of self-esteem and identity. Obese children are much more likely to be depressed and withdraw from social interaction. Other children are more likely to negatively stereotype overweight and obese children starting as early as preschool. Researchers have found that preschoolers characterized obese classmates as ugly or lazy more often than other children. This negative stereotyping of obese young children increases as children enter school and reach adolescence.

In addition to food and activity, researchers have found that stress is related to obesity. Children, like adults, tend to increase intake of “comfort foods” when under stress which generally contain higher fat and sweet content. Researchers have found that obese children tend to have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood. Stress in the home affecting children may be caused by parental arguments, unresolved issues, or harsh parental treatment.

Obesity in children results from a combination of factors including eating the wrong kinds of food, inactivity, and increased or unresolved stress. Consequently, the best place to begin in curtailing obesity is with the family. Parents have to resist the idea that overweight kids are cute or it is just a phase that they are going through and they will grow out of it. Certainly baby fat on infants and toddlers is not something to worry about, but researchers have found that by age 3, overweight children are beginning a lifelong pattern in which at least 20% will continue being overweight into adulthood.

Here are some suggestions that patents can do to reduce the risk of obesity in children:
• Reduce sedentary activities. Limit the time that children spend in watching TV or playing video games. Use TV watching as a reward for physical activity.
• Increase physical activity. Spend some time in family activities that require the use of the large muscle group, such as taking a walk.
• Encourage children to participate in youth team sports. San Clemente has a variety of team sports activities for children of all ages. The Boys and Girls Club, American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), National Journal Basketball (NJB), San Clemente Girls Softball and others all offer various opportunities for children of all ages to participate. Team sports not only provide good exercise, but help children learn how to work together to achieve goals.
• Become more food health conscious. A parent doesn’t have to become a food policeman to do this. Just providing fresh fruit and vegetables for snacks is a good start. This could be introduced over a period of time to phase out the more fatty snacks that children prefer. Meals should include servings of steamed green vegetables, low fat meats and several serving of fish a week, high fiber grains and low-fat dairy products, and foods that have low sodium and sugar content. Encourage more milk and water intake instead of sodas.
• Take a family outing to the grocery store to make healthy food choices. Spend time reading package labeling to assure the product being chosen is indeed healthy. For example, whole wheat crackers that have no grams of fiber are less healthy than ones that contain 1-3 grams of fiber per serving.
• Focus on health and not appearance. In talking to children parents should resist talking about their weight. Being too conscious about weight may contribute to children, especially girls, developing eating disorders, such as bulimia. Preadolescent girls are very concerned about body-image which has become a primary expression of their identity.
Reduce family stress. Have regular routines so that children can develop effective patterns for mealtimes, homework and bedtim

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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