?The obvious answer to that question is television…hours and hours in front of the “boob tube,” but it’s not the only answer. During the past decade, a growing number of American children can be described as obese and there is escalating concern among parents and pediatricians about what this portends for these youngsters as they grow to adulthood. Many fear that the dramatic increase in the number of overweight children in this country constitutes a national health crisis.
While there is no universal definition for “overweight,” children are considered obese when total body weight is more than 25 percent fat in boys and more than 32 percent in girls The determination can be made with the help of the height and weight charts from the National Center for Health Statistics. Just a few extra pounds on a small child can tip the scales to obesity.
There have been numerous studies on this worrisome problem in recent years and the statistics should sound the alarm. At least one child in five is overweight and more than 21 percent of America’s children go all the way to obese. Since 1980, the number of seriously overweight youngsters has nearly doubled and the average American child is now ten pounds heavier than the average weight only eight years ago.
“We probably shouldn’t be surprised by these statistics,” commented pediatrician Laurie McKillip, M.D., Physicians Group of the Woodlands. “After all, we live in a society that is more than 51 percent overweight. Let’s face it, this is a problem full of dichotomies. Just about everyone thinks a chubby infant or toddler is adorable, but an overweight teen takes the brunt of insensitive remarks and teasing from their peers. We admonish youngsters to eat everything on their plates, and then tease them when they want seconds. And, the ultimate confusion results when the child tries to figure out whether to do what their parents say or what they do. It is not an exaggeration to say that today’s children are just about as mixed up about how to eat healthy as are their parents.”
“To get an idea of how pervasive the problem is, all you need to do is go somewhere teens gather — like the local shopping mall,” she suggested, “and you will immediately notice the number of young adults who don’t fit comfortably into the ‘thin-is-in’ stereotype. While clothing stores that cater to teens carry mostly smaller sizes, they do now include at least a basic selection of larger sizes. Not too long ago, overweight girls would have had to go to a plus size women’s store to find their sizes. Since it takes a while for the retail marketplace to adapt, this is a real indication about how far this weight trend has progressed.”
“We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of obesity during the teen years. It is, after all, during this time when the development of personal identity and self-worth is in its most critical stage, and overweight adolescents often find it difficult to adjust in a world obsessed with THIN,” the doctor continued. “The problem is much more than one of aesthetics and vanity. Obesity carries higher risk for dangerous medical conditions such as high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol levels, gallbladder disease, adult on-set diabetes, and heart disease.”
Statistics indicate that there is a greater than 40 percent chance that a child will be overweight if one parent is obese, and — if both parents are overweight — that number increases to 80 percent. There is a genetic influence to some extent, scientists believe, but there is also a cause and effect relationship brought about by children following the same high-fat diets and low levels of physical activity practiced by their parents. Obesity in children is usually due to a combination of factors — poor eating habits, their genetic makeup, the amount of exercise they get, and even, to some extent, ethnicity. Research has shown that obesity is more prevalent among African-American, Hispanic and American Indian children, especially girls.
Lest we be too quick to criticize a child’s eating habits, studies indicate that overweight children are not necessarily overeaters. Sometimes they just eat and drink too much of the wrong things. Eating a small bag of potato chips each day, for some youngsters, can lead to a half pound a week weight gain. That may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but it can add up to two pounds a month or 24 pounds a year! According to some reports, teenagers drink almost 65 gallons of soft drinks a year. When you add the mountains of fast-food meals and high-fat snacks to these high sugar beverages, it’s not too hard to identify what behaviors are contributing to the problem.
Television is really coming under fire these days, and not just for its violent content. Medical researchers are pointing an accusing finger at TV because too many kids are becoming “couch potatoes,” spending endless hours in front of the tube, munching on high calorie snacks. If they also play video games, their exercise level may decrease even further. According to national statistics, the average child spends about 24 hours each week that might better be devoted to some physical activity. A recent study reported that the odds of a child being overweight who watched more than 5 hours of TV a day were five times greater than for a child who watched less than two hours a day.
“If overweight youngsters would just use their arms more,” McKillip advised, “to push away from the table and to reach over and turn off the TV, they might be able to shed some excess pounds. Unfortunately, for many obese kids, medical intervention is often required. When parents notice the onset of a weight problem that is not resolved in a few months by normal growth, we recommend that they contact the child’s doctor and arrange for a physical exam. A careful evaluation will help determine what’s behind the weight gain, and ascertain if the youngster actually needs to lose weight or just to gain it at a slower rate so they can grow into it.”
It is difficult to treat obesity in children, as it is to remedy excessive weight gain in adults. We have to do a better job of getting acrossthe fact that this is the only body we’re going to get and we have to live in it all our lives. Helping youngsters learn to manage their weight has to be done in a gentle environment, being careful not to bruise tender egos. Experts suggest that one way to accomplish this is to focus on improving the whole family’s eating habits, and not singling out the overweight child.
Everyone in the family might benefit from knowing, for example, that a fast-food meal consisting of the usual hamburger, fries and a soft drink contains up to 36 percent of the daily calories a first grader needs, but it doesn’t fill even 20 percent of the nutrients that child needs.
“With today’s fast-paced lifestyles, it is probably unrealistic to think any of us could give up fast food completely,” said Dr. McKillip. “But we can sure do a lot better job of making selections from the menu. Grilled chicken instead of deep fried chicken pieces, mustard and catsup instead of mayo, baked potatoes instead of fries, and leaving off the cheese is a good place to start. Forego the ‘upsizing’ they’re pushing at the drive-ins and keep the portions small. It doesn’t take too much research to discover which food chains are now offering lower-fat content foods, and which actually have low-calorie or heart healthy options.”
“Of course, every case is unique,” the pediatrician pointed out. “There is no one magic formula that will solve every child’s problem, but we do know that early intervention is particularly valuable because eating and exercise habits are more easily modified in childhood than as an adult. With a few general guidelines, the intervention would include modifications to the child’s level of physical activity, the introduction of a balanced diet with only moderate calorie restriction, and an overall behavior modification strategy that includes a liberal amount of self-monitoring and built-in incentives that aren’t food related.”
The good news about establishing a family-oriented healthy eating program, is that everyone will benefit in the long run. A companion effort to increase physical activity is important, as well. Be a role model for your youngsters; if they see you having fun eating right and exercising more, they are more likely to follow your lead. Plan plenty of family activities that involve turning off the TV and enjoying activities like walking, skating, biking, hiking or swimming.
“Perhaps the most important thing a parent can do for an overweight youngster,” explained Dr. McKillip, “is to be sensitive to their needs and limitations in participating in more physical activities. Don’t push them, but help them find activities they can enjoy. These kids need lots of support, encouragement and love. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to let them know they are just great — whatever their weight. Find the happy medium in talking to your child about healthy eating and the benefits of exercise without scolding or being overly harsh about their extra pounds. Your child probably
knows better than anybody else that he or she has a weight problem. After all, their mirror tells them so them every day, so you don’t need to, as well.”
Dr. McKillip reminds parents that it is better to err on the side of getting medical help too early rather than too late. “The earlier we can determine if the child has a real problem with potential obesity or they just haven’t grown out of their ‘baby fat’ yet, the quicker we can help them toward permanent eating and exercise habits that will keep them fit for life.”