Obesity is a major health concern for Americans in general, but the rapidly escalating prevalence of overweight or obese children is particularly alarming.
Overall, Oklahoma holds the distinction of being the fifth heaviest state in the country, and is one of only six states with more than 30% of its residents falling into the category of overweight or obese. The change between my own generation and my children’s is simply startling, as the number of overweight children ages 2-19 has more than tripled in number since 1976. As a parent, this leads me to wonder: Why the dramatic increase? What are the implications? And, most importantly, what can be done to reverse this frightening trend?
Childhood Obesity: By the Numbers
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately 30% of the pediatric population can be classified as overweight or obese, which is indicated by a Body Mass Index (BMI) that falls into the 85th percentile or higher. A child’s BMI is calculated according to his or her height and weight. For children and adolescents, BMI is specific to age and gender, and is often referred to as BMI-for-age, which indicates that the BMI is plotted on CDC growth charts to obtain a percentile ranking. Children and adolescents with a BMI ranking over the 85th percentile but less than the 95th are considered overweight. Those with a BMI ranking at or above the 95th percentile are considered obese.
Overweight or obese children and adolescents are at increased risk for a number of health problems, including asthma, Type 2 Diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and joint pain. Some of these conditions may have serious health effects and often require long-term treatment. To that end, annual hospital costs related to childhood obesity have more than tripled in less than 20 years, from $35 million to $127 million. These numbers don’t take into account the research showing that overweight children have lower self-esteem and self-confidence than their thinner peers. Decreased self-esteem and self-confidence have been linked to depression and poor academic performance.
In the course of my research, I can honestly say the most upsetting statistics came courtesy of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. According to this government agency, overweight children and adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. Worse yet, this chance increases to 80% if one or more parents is overweight or obese. Just stop a moment and consider the implications of this trend. Might we be looking at a nation with an overweight/obesity rate of greater than 50% in merely a couple of decades? As parents and role models, how do we stop this deadly trend?
While genetic factors play a distinct role in an individual’s predisposition toward carrying excess body weight, the rapid rise in obesity in the general population cannot be attributed solely to genetic factors. Rather, a combination of environmental and behavioral factors has a significant effect on a person’s weight, while genetic susceptibility often exacerbates those effects. Consider that the genetic characteristics of the human population have not changed over the past three decades, while the prevalence of obesity among children has tripled.
So, what exactly are these behavioral and environmental factors that are proving so detrimental to this nation’s children? Edmond native and licensed dietitian Mike Bowles has a number of theories. “One of the biggest mistakes I see among my clientele is the regular consumption of high-calorie drinks.” He goes on to point out that just one Coke per day adds up to 58,400 calories per year, which translates into 17 extra pounds of body fat that have to be worked off somewhere. Still tempted to pop that top?
A simple lack of knowledge may play a major part in the drastic increase in childhood obesity. “Children at age six or eight don’t always have the maturity to make healthy decisions. It’s the parent’s job to say no and limit exposure to junk foods.” Parents also need to model healthy choices themselves. Bowles often challenges his clients to carefully examine nutritional information on labels and in restaurants, and cautions that portion size is very important. His best advice? Focus on the positive! “Encourage kids to participate in every part of food preparation, from recipe selection to grocery shopping to cooking and serving meals.”
In particular, Bowles stresses the importance of getting 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables—preferably fresh—per day. Kids should have at least one hour of physical activity and limit television to less than two hours daily. Parents should limit liquid calories, fast food, and take out, and should eat meals together as a family. “Getting them involved is the best way to teach good nutrition. As parents, it’s our job to teach our kids to be healthy, and what they become is a direct reflection of what they have learned from us,” says the father of three.
Childhood obesity is rising at alarming rates in the United States. The health risks of being overweight or obese at any age greatly affect quality of life. Carefully consider your family’s diet, and if you have concerns, contact a healthcare professional or a dietitian. Check back next month for more information on making healthy restaurant choices for your family.
Want to learn more?
Childhood obesity is a hot topic in the news today. Find information on how breastfeeding affects childhood obesity; learn more about the Lets Move! Program promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama; and find reviews of healthy and eco-friendly cookbooks geared toward parents and children at MetroFamilyMagazine.com/March-2010
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions.