Curbing childhood obesity

Dr. Teresa Carson, M.D.

Whether your child or teen eats in the school cafeteria or packs lunch from home, establishing and maintaining healthy eating habits is more than just a matter of good nutrition – it is critically important to lifelong health and avoiding chronic disease. Childhood obesity is creating a nation of overweight youth, and a generation battling chronic weight-related diseases traditionally seen only in older adults.

Since 1980, the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents has almost tripled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Today, approximately 17 percent, or 12.5 million, of children and adolescents ages 2 - 19 years old are obese – triple the rate from just one generation ago. “Overweight” is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 85th percentile through the 95th percentile, and “obese” is defined as having a BMI at or above the 95th percentile, which is now 33% of children.

Being overweight has detrimental effects on a child’s self esteem, leading to a poor self-image, depression, social discrimination, unhealthy eating habits and possibly, eating disorders. In addition to the social stigma of being overweight, the health risks for children are significant.

Numerous industry studies have shown that overweight or obese children will battle this condition for life, and those who have weight problem as children will be more severely overweight or obese as adults. Being overweight or obese also puts children at risk for a variety of harmful and detrimental health conditions. Many children and youth are being diagnosed as early as their teen years with these chronic conditions:

High blood pressure

High cholesterol

Type 2 diabetes

Breathing problems such as sleep apnea and asthma

Joint problems

Gallstones

Heartburn and GERD

Kidney disease

Studies show that nearly 70 percent of obese children between ages five and 10 have at least one risk factor for heart disease, and nearly 30 percent had two or more heart disease risk factors.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends at least 60 minutes of aerobic physical activity each day for children.

Currently, 23.6 million children and adults in the United States – or nearly eight percent of the population – have diabetes, and it is one of the leading causes of death by disease in the United States. Since 1987, the death rate among adults due to diabetes has increased by 45 percent. Sadly, according to the American Diabetes Association, one in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life. Statistics are more bleak for ethnic minorities, particularly African American and Hispanic children. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which has tracks obesity rates, notes that obesity rates among ethnic minority children are at least 10 to 12 percent higher than obesity among Caucasian children.

The causes of childhood obesity are very basic: children eating too many calories and not getting sufficient exercise. The prevalence of sugary soft drinks, fast food and high-fat processed foods in the American diet, larger portion sizes, and increasingly sedentary lifestyles – including excessive television and video time – are primary factors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends at least 60 minutes of aerobic physical activity each day for children, yet only 18 percent of students in grades 9 - 12 meet this recommendation, according to the CDC.

Health providers, nutritionists, and educators are working together to reverse the trend. Start at home by modeling healthy eating habits, making good nutritional choices, and limiting television and video time. Instead, engaging in physical activity as a family such as walking together or going for a bike ride. Doing things as a family will help develop lifelong good habits.

Dr. Carson is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson School of Medicine. She completed an internship and residency training at Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. She also completed residency training at Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Carson is in practice with Coventry Pediatrics, Pottstown.