What if there was a disease out there affecting over 35 percent of the nation’s adult population and 17 percent of the nation’s children? What if the number of people affected tripled in just the last two decades? What if this generation of children were the first predicted to have a shorter lifespan than their parents, and what if this disease was thought to lead to multiple chronic health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and even certain cancers? Unfortunately, such a disease does exist and is affecting over 12.5 million children and adolescents nationwide. It’s America’s growing problem, and it’s killing our children. The disease is obesity.
Obesity By The Numbers
There have been plenty of media discussions surrounding the “obesity epidemic” that’s sweeping across our nation. But what exactly classifies a child as obese?According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most accurate measurement for obesity is the body mass index (BMI), which is calculated using a person’s height and weight measurements. The CDC uses growth charts to determine where a child’s BMI falls in relation to other children their age. A child ranging in the 85th percentile (meaning that he or she weighs more than 85 percent of children their age) is classified as “overweight,” while children in the 95th percentile or above are considered obese.
So what makes obesity an epidemic? The next time you visit an amusement park, shopping mall, restaurant or school, take a look around—you’ll get a pretty good idea of why it’s considered an epidemic. The number of states with an obesity prevalence of 30 percent or more has been steadily increasing in the past decade. In 1990, there weren’t any states with an obesity prevalence over 15 percent. By 2010, 36 states were over 25 percent prevalence, and 12 of these states were equal to or greater than 30 percent obesity prevalence. Florida’s obesity prevalence is currently at 26.6 percent. And that’s obesity, not just being overweight, which carries its own set of hefty statistics.
Today’s children are growing up in a society that is overeating itself to death. In 1980, 7 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were categorized as obese. That number skyrocketed in 2008 to 20 percent. Today there are 12.5 million children between the ages of 2 and 19 who are classified as obese and predisposed to not only a list of avoidable physical diseases but profound psychological consequences as well.
When Did We Start Tipping the Scales?
How can a country obsessed with “thinness” and fashion allow their population to fall into the rut of obesity? On television we’re bombarded by ads for pills, potions, elixirs and creams all promising that, with just a few treatments, the pounds will drop off. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, apparently it is.
Lynn Richey R.D., L.D., the senior public health nutritionist supervisor at the Marion County Health Department, attributes this nationwide epidemic among our children to a number of sources.
“Lifestyles are different now than they were before,” she says. She cites busier parents, advances in technology and an explosion in portion sizes to be among the top perpetrators.
“In many homes now, both parents work and fast food is more common,” she says. Couple that with the availability of food that is in front of us and it’s no wonder eating is on everyone’s mind 24/7.
“Everywhere you look there are vending machines, candy and sugary drinks,” Lynn adds. “All that temptation puts parents in a bad place,” she says.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, food and beverage advertisers spend between $10 and $12 billion annually on advertising targeted toward children, and research suggests there may be a link between food advertising and the rising obesity trends. In fact, one study found that requests for certain snacks and other food products seen advertised on television came from children as young as 3.
Lynn says that, for many parents of picky eaters, a request for food is often met with relief, and parents may purchase items without looking into their nutritional qualities.
The biggest offenders, in her opinion, are the sugar-laden beverages. And it’s not always soda she is referring to.
“Parents think they are doing the right thing by giving their kids juice, but those calories add up,” she says. “Juice has the same amount of calories as soda,” she points out. She says children should only be consuming one cup of juice maximum per day, but kids today are drinking juice, punches, sports drinks and other high-sugar, high-calorie beverages all day long. And once they develop a taste for them, it’s hard to switch back to plain ol’ water. Combine an increased caloric intake with inactivity and you have the perfect recipe for obesity.
“Obesity is about calorie imbalance,” says Lynn. “When you take in more calories than you burn, you will gain weight.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calculates that, on average, 25 percent of children’s waking hours are spent watching television and children who watch the most television have the highest incidence of obesity. Time spent in front of the TV also doesn’t take into account hours spent sitting at a desk in school or sitting in front of a video game at home. Even sitting and reading a book is still sitting. And similar to attempting a change from sweet and fruity juices to water, once a child has developed a sedentary lifestyle, it’s not easy to get them off the couch and moving.
When “Baby Fat” Isn’t Cute
It’s a mother’s instinct to provide food and comfort for her child. But what if all that well-intentioned feeding and comforting were slowly killing them instead?
Anne Allen, the senior community health nurse supervisor for the Marion County Health Department, has seen firsthand the dramatic changes in children’s weight over the past decade.
“We used to focus more on the underweight children, but over the last 10 years, we’ve noticed more and more overweight children,” says Anne. “Obesity is a national epidemic, and Marion County isn’t immune,” she says.
Under Florida law, children in grades 1, 3 and 5 are given a “health report card” to take home that includes a BMI measurement along with vision and hearing tests. Of the 8,945 children tested during the 2011-2012 school year, 2,039 or 22 percent had a high enough BMI to be considered obese.
“The scariest thing about those numbers is that one out of every six obese children is destined to become a full-blown diabetic,” saysLori Ritchie, a Marion County school health nurse.
“Type II diabetes is a very expensive disease to control with all of the medications and doctors visits,” she says. Lori notes that there has been a steady rise in the number of type II diabetic students in Marion County schools over the past few years. She refers to the disease as a “silent killer” that can be reversed with diet and lifestyle changes but only up to a point before the damage becomes permanent.
Unfortunately, diabetes is not the only disease obese children face.
“I see kids on cholesterol medication, blood pressure medication. These kids have diseases we normally see in 50 or 60 year olds,” says Jenny Martinez, a fellow student health nurse. She points out that these medications may treat the diseases but have other negative side effects, including liver damage.
“When you start taking these medications at 8 years old, that’s a long time to be stressing your liver,” she says. And though nurses at the health department are there to help battle the epidemic, they are often met with hostility by defensive parents who, for whatever reason, disregard the report.
“We are not judging you or your child, we are opening the door for communication and offering resources to help you,” Jenny says.
So who’s responsible for the growing obesity problem in our children? The blame game can go round and round. You can blame portion sizes, but no one is force-feeding anyone. You can blame the advertising media, but no one is forcing anyone to buy anything.
“The obesity epidemic is here. We all know about it, and sometimes we laugh about it, but it’s getting worse,” says Jenny. And even though the “fat guy” comedy act, i.e. Chris Farley, John Candy and a multitude of others who have made millions off their generous girths, is something most people will laugh at without hesitation, the psychological effect obesity has on children is anything but a laughing matter.
How To Fight The Fat
As a registered dietician, Lynn Richey reiterates that obesity is about calorie imbalance. When the body consumes more calories than it burns, it will gain weight. However, she does not promote placing children on a diet with the idea of losing weight.
“You don’t want children to diet, and you don’t want them to lose weight because their bodies are growing,” says Lynn. Instead, she will illustrate to parents where their child falls on the growth charts compiled by the CDC.
“We want the child to stop gaining weight, so as they grow, they can get back on the curve,” she says, adding that the “growth curve” indicates a healthy height and weight for a child.
And she points out that getting back on that curve is going to take some work from the entire family, especially if the parents struggle with weight problems as well. Research indicates that children of overweight or obese parents are more likely to be overweight or obese themselves. But that doesn’t mean with some simple changes the entire family can’t get to a healthy weight.
The Marion County school system recently launched the 5210 program, a nationally recognized childhood obesity prevention program, which promotes five servings of fruits and vegetables, two hours of television and video game time, one hour of physical activity and zero servings of sweetened beverages daily. While this may seem drastic for children and parents who are currently struggling with weight, they should remember that even small steps toward this goal have a big effect.
Evelyn J. James, health education supervisor for the Marion County Health Department, has seen the impact the 5210 campaign has had on her 7 year old who has started requesting more servings of fruits and veggies with meals.
Evelyn works throughout the community promoting healthy lifestyles and is a big proponent of exercise and physical activity.
“You can’t have the nutrition component without the exercise component,” she says.
“People tend to focus on the I can’ts, but I try to get them to focus on what they are already doing and just expand on it,” she says. It can be as simple as going to the park a few times a week or playing a game outside. Evelyn often refers to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, urging parents and kids to “just move, any way they can.” And for parents who think they are too busy to incorporate one more activity into their day or who ignore the health report cards, Evelyn offers this thought to contemplate: “Think of your children 20 or 30 years from now. If they are overweight and on medication now, they won’t live to be your age.”
Just Do It—You Can’t Afford Not To
There are many resources for parents and children who struggle with weight in Marion County. For those who qualify, the WIC program is available through the Marion County Health Department and allows families to work one on one with dieticians. The school nurses are passionate about the plight to combat this epidemic as well and are another great resource for parents looking for direction. And along with dieticians in private practice, the health department offers counseling as well.
For those who don’t know where to begin, start by following the advice of First Lady Obama: Just move!
Lynn’s Tips For Healthier Eating
Lead by example. If you don’t eat healthy, your kids won’t either.
Don’t buy it. If junk food isn’t in the house, there is less temptation to eat it. Instead, stock up on fruits, veggies, lean proteins and whole grains.
Get in a routine. It’s not always easy, but plan meal and snack times. Don’t let your children mindlessly consume snacks throughout the day. Those calories add up!
Be stingy with the seconds. If your child wants a second helping at dinner, make sure it’s a second helping of vegetables.
Tune in and turn off. Don’t have a TV playing during mealtime, which encourages overeating. Instead, discuss school and your child’s social life and eat slowly as a family.
Make cooking a family experience. Discuss with your kids new foods they’d like to try, and let them participate in the shopping and preparation of healthy meals.
H2O all the way. Get rid of the sweetened beverages, and avoid artificial sweeteners as well. If your child must have flavor in their water, add a small amount of juice to their water.
Not sure where to begin? Here is a list of helpful websites that offer great tips for smarter eating, starting an exercise program, how to calculate your BMI, the WIC program and more.