Wednesday September 23 2020
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A Growing Problem: Tackling Childhood Obesity

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Childhood obesity ranks as one of the more concerning health topics for parents. So much easy-to-access information exists online that finding a consensus or clear recommendations can seem overwhelming.

Still, amidst that overabundance information a clear culprit exists.

Parents of pre-teens, even parents of youth athletes, need only to make a trip to the bathroom to find the source of the problem. It’s not a matter of measuring their child’s progress on the scale, either.

Those parents just need to look in the mirror because childhood obesity, according to almost every study available, inevitably results from a lack of exercise and poor dietary habits – things parents can control, choose not to control, or even choose to ignore.

More and more, parents seem willing to wrest that control away from their children, their classmates or others who can influence healthful decision making. In fact, that search for control has led to positive steps about dealing with the issue.

“We’ve had the fast food discussion with other parents,” says Jonathan Thurley, a youth soccer coach, former college athlete and father of two who maintains his own daily running routine. “We’ll ask the other people sitting at the game what they let their kids order at McDonald’s, or if they encourage the apples instead of the fries.

“So much of the problem is lifestyle choices. Some people would rather let their kids pick up a bag of chips and sit around playing video games instead of getting them outside to play or helping them find the best things to eat.

“Kids are bigger, by far they’re bigger, than they were years ago. A big kid stood out when I was young. Now they’re all big – and they’re not healthy big. It’s our responsibility to help them be healthy. It affects all of us.”

Health officials argue that overweight children become overweight adults and, often, a tax on the health system in general.

Some call childhood obesity an epidemic and point toward the 25 million U.S. children categorized as obese as an alarming sign. While “body mass index” evaluations and sometimes vague descriptions of what qualifies as obese might taint good discussions on the topic, health officials justifiably worry about the potential consequences of children who are overweight, and the factors that cause the problems.

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the largest foundations dedicated to health and health care issues in the United States, expects problems now to grow in the future. She says obesity is linked to depression and the number of obese children presents a “pretty bleak picture” for them and the health care system in the future.

She believes obesity among children has resulted from unintended consequences of everything from a society that has become more reliant on automobiles (meaning people walk less and get less exercise as a result) and more accommodating of things such as video games as a means for children to spend their time.

Still, she knows times have changed.

“I’m not in favor of going back to the ’50s or ’60s,” Lavizzo-Mourey says. “We aren’t going to solve this problem by taking a retro view. We’ve got to find 21st century solutions to how you can re-engineer activity into the very busy schedules that we all have and re-engineer making healthy choices in a quick accessible way that fits the environment that people have now.”

A preventative, re-engineered approach has already become institutionalized in many ways. Those actions have prompted changes from menu selections at fast food restaurants to the contents of vending machines in school cafeterias. Also, more health conscious and savvy children—many of them youth athletes who have gotten the message from coaches and in school—turn to nutritional labels on food regularly.

A collection of 15 leading U.S. health groups known as the Expert Committee on the Assessment, Prevention, and Treatment of Child and Adolescent Overweight and Obesity, recently drew up an agreement to fight childhood obesity. Not surprisingly, the group also put responsibility on parents, with one of its lead authors, Denver pediatric cardiologist Reginald Washington, citing “overwhelming evidence that any program that tackles childhood obesity must include the family and parents as both examples and facilitators of healthy lifestyles.”

Among the groups represented on the committee were the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The committee’s tips for weight control among children include the following:

  • - drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages;
  • - eat breakfast each day;
  • - eat meals as a family;
  • - eat more fruits and vegetables, calcium and fiber;
  • - eat less snacks high in calories and fat
  • - limit TV, computer and video time to two hours a day;
  • - limit portion sizes;
  • - limit restaurant meals; and
  • - urge children to do an hour of moderate to physical activity every day.

For parents of youth athletes, a regular schedule of exercise ranks as one of the key items on that list. With a commitment to physical activity—something that can be modeled by parents with things as simple as walking or as involved as a personal training regime—children can overcome occasional poor choices or eating out after a game.

After all, there’s no need to take away the post-game treat at Dairy Queen as part the battle against childhood obesity. Real results come from overall decisions, not one-time detours.

“It should be something people talk about, and is should be something parents know about to help their children,” says Barb Anderson, a certified physical trainer, former high school athlete and mother of one. “At the same time, it’s not something that should have people worry about every little thing that a child does or eats. You want a healthy lifestyle, not some no-fun, over-managed, over-regimented life that’s not enjoyable or spontaneous for your child.

“Kids can eat sweets sometimes. Kids can just relax and do nothing at home sometimes. It’s moderation that matters.”

Good news exists about the prevalence of childhood obesity, too. According to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity rates have leveled off for the first time in 25 years.

Researchers who conducted the study want at least another year before declaring the leveling off as any more than a statistical anomaly, but they do appreciate the potentially positive news. Still, CDC research Cynthia Ogden, the study’s lead author, admits that “maybe there is some reason for a little bit of optimism.”

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