Child Obesity in America

Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.

Child obesity is growing at an alarming rate in America.

Health professionals have described it as a national epidemic. About nine million kids are affected. That amounts to 15 percent of American children, aged 6 to 11 years, who are considerably overweight. This number has actually tripled in the past 30 years. And the rates for obesity are actually greater for minority children. Over 25 percent of Black and Hispanic kids are overweight.

A Salad and A Pedometer

Not only is the pediatric population as a whole getting fatter, but the fatter children are also getting more obese, with super-obesity having increased almost 100 percent over the past two decades. Obese children are at high risk of becoming obese adults, and the more obese the child becomes, the greater the risk of obesity when they reach adulthood.

After some time the overweight child may experience elevated blood lipids, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and other problems. The risk of an elevated blood cholesterol level is greatest among children with body weights above the 90th percentile.

Almost 7 million American children and teenagers are believed to have high cholesterol levels. Results from the Bogalusa and Muscatine studies indicate that children with elevated LDL cholesterol levels are at high risk of becoming adults with elevated LDL cholesterol levels.

Overweight kids are on a fast track to cardiovascular disease and diabetes, diseases that we usually associate with middle-aged adults. Pediatricians are alarmed at the rapid rise in the incidence of type 2 diabetes in children and adolescents. Recent reports reveal that up to 40 percent of children with newly diagnosed diabetes have type 2 diabetes, the type closely associated with obesity. In addition to physical health problems, the overweight child also experiences emotional and social problems.

What are the reasons for the increased obesity we see in children today? Lifestyle factors are surely to blame. Many young people today follow a very sedentary lifestyle. Leisure time is so often spent watching television and DVD movies, playing computer games, surfing the web, or chatting on the internet, rather than outdoor play and activities. The government wants both children and adults across the nation to add to their lifestyle the habit of walking every day in an effort to curtail the obesity epidemic.

We have observed that the eating habits of children have substantially changed over the past two decades. Children are obtaining a greater proportion of their calories from fast foods and snacks that are typically high in fat, salt and sugar. These foods include ice cream, soda pop, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, pizza, french fries, shakes, chips, and candy bars, rather than fiber-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Furthermore, portion sizes have increased quite dramatically leading children to consume more food. Over the past two decades, the average portion sizes of food has increased by 50 to 135 calories, while the average beverage serving increased from 8 to 20 ounces. As the portion sizes increase so do the waistlines of our children.

Another factor that impinges upon the nutritional quality of a child’s diet is the fact that many American families don’t eat meals together very often. Research shows that when children eat meals with their parents they eat a more nutritious diet. The nutritional quality of a child’s diet is positively influenced not only by having a pleasant family atmosphere at mealtime, but also by having a good parental role model as far as food preferences are concerned.

Children who eat by themselves tend to eat foods high in fat, sugar and salt. But poor nutrition is not the only downside of allowing children to fend for themselves. Regular family meals also provide order, discipline and emotional security for a child. Psychologists have found that positive child-parent interactions improve a child’s development and their cognitive ability.

It is really important that changes be made to help stem the national child obesity epidemic. Firstly, children should be encouraged to engage in a greater amount of physical activity including walking, cycling, and other outdoor activities. Body weight could be better managed if each child wore a pedometer and walked about 2,000 steps every day. School lunch programs need to provide more low-fat and low-calorie choices. Proper meal patterns should be established for the entire family with parents role-modeling good eating habits. Children should be encouraged to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and less fast-food and processed food that is high in fat, calories, sugar and salt.

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