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Health blog

Children and Obesity

Most parents know about the epidemic of childhood obesity. Childhood obesity has more than tripled over the past three decades, putting children at risk for maladies, such as high blood pressure, that used to affect older people. Nearly one-third of today’s children are overweight or obese.

Causes of Childhood Obesity
How did so many of our children develop weight problems? Both dietary and lifestyle factors are to blame. Children doubled their intake of sugared soda over the past 25 years, and are eating more high-calorie foods such as pizza, snack foods, and desserts. Families eat more meals away from home than in the past. These meals typically are higher in fat and offer much larger portions than meals prepared at home. At the same time, consumption of lower-calorie vegetables and fruits has decreased.

Lifestyle and societal factors contributing to heavier children include more television watching, video-game playing and computer usage, all contributing to a sedentary lifestyle. Children don’t play outdoors as much as they used to. They may be over-scheduled with after-school activities that limit active playtime. In other instances, children don’t have access to appropriate play areas. It may not be safe in some neighborhoods for children to play outside or adult supervision is limited due to parental work schedules. Some experts say the extensive advertising of high-calorie fast foods is partly to blame.

Weight and Health
Growth charts for children integrate age, height and body mass index. Children over the 85th percentile for age are at risk for becoming overweight, while those over the 95th percentile for age are overweight. (Available at: www.cdc.gov/growthcharts/html_charts/bmiagerev.htm. Note: you must convert the child’s weight to kilograms to use the charts.)

Obese children are more likely to have high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, well-known risks for heart disease. One study showed 70% of obese children had one risk factor for heart disease and 39% had two or more. Obesity leads to type 2 diabetes; breathing problems such as sleep apnea and worsening of asthma; joint problems; and liver and stomach problems. In addition, heavier children may suffer from social and psychological problems such as poor self-esteem and discrimination.

Eating and Exercise
Two years ago the U.S. government changed the Food Pyramid to the Plate, making it easier than ever to select the right foods. A variety of vegetables and fruits should fill half a child’s plate. A little less than one-fourth of the plate should be lean protein, while the balance includes grains (at least half the grains should be whole grains). Low-fat or fat-free dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese should fill the dairy section. Serve 2 cups daily to two to three-year-olds and 2-1/2 cups daily to four to eight-year-olds.

Eating right is only half the equation for a healthy weight. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans say that children and adolescents should engage in one hour or more of daily physical activity, including aerobic activities, and muscle- and bone-strengthening activities. Fortunately, many normal childhood activities such as running, jump-rope, soccer, tag, climbing, bicycling, hopscotch, swimming and dancing incorporate these elements.

Taking Action
Many adults want to lose weight to improve their appearance. With children, it’s better to focus on how healthier eating can make them feel better and do better in school and sports. The goal is to reduce the rate of weight gain while allowing normal growth and development. It’s simple, but not always easy, to accomplish. Families may have to learn a whole new way of eating. Offer plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grain products. Switch to low-fat or non-fat milk and dairy products. Choose lean meat, poultry, fish, lentils and beans for protein. Serve reasonably sized portions. Drink lots of water. Limit sugar-sweetened beverages, fat and sugary desserts.

There’s a bit of good news about childhood obesity. California has taken decisive action against this dangerous trend and reports a slight decline in child obesity rates. California set strong nutrition standards for school snacks and prohibits sugar-sweetened beverages in high schools. A recent report showed California students ate 158 fewer calories per day than students in states with weaker standards. California requires a minimum of 175 school days per year. That means 27,650 calories are not being consumed at school and nearly eight pounds are not being gained. Small steps can deliver big results over time.
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