I don’t know if childhood obesity is “rampant” or an “epidemic”. What I DO know is that it does not have to happen to our children.
However, just to put things in perspective, over a recent 30 year period measured by the National Health And Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a study conducted every 10 years to survey the dietary habits and health of U. S. residents, certain changes in childhood obesity came to light. The following increases in numbers of overweight and obese children, as determined by body mass index measurements (BMI), occurred.
*Numbers of children aged 2-5 years increased from 5.0% to 13.9%
*Numbers of children aged 6-11 years increased from 4.0% to 18.8%
*Numbers of children aged 12-19 years increased from 6.1% to 17.4%
CAUSES OF CHILDHOOD OBESITY
As with adults, the simple answer for the individual child is that when children take in more calories than they burn, they gain weight, i.e. become overweight and obese. However, children are influenced by societal factors, just as adults are, but they have less discretionary power to evaluate and decide as to the value of given nutritional and lifestyle choices, even in those cases where they are aware that a choice exists. Additionally, children are strongly influenced by what they are shown and taught by their elders, caregivers, siblings, and parents.
While it would be great if society would make an important enough issue of childhood obesity to turn the trend around, it is commonly the parents who will have the most influence for better or for worse on this issue.
Some common contributing factors to childhood obesity are:
1. Genetics: It has to be conceded that no matter what action parents, society, or the children themselves take, the genetic hand that the child was dealt will have a great impact on the outcome of any choices whether good or bad. However, the good news is that many negative genetic factors can be overcome to at least some extent by wise choices, which we will discuss in a few minutes.
2. Calorie Intake: As with adults, the more calories ingested, the more likely the path to obesity…particularly in the area of such empty calories as sodas and candy sweetened with sugar or corn syrup, for example. Other questionable choices are high fat snacks chosen in place of lower fat, more nutritionally dense snacks.
3. Calories Burned: Children used to burn calories by playing outside with other children, riding bicycles, and doing chores, just to name a few options. Today’s kids often spend hours in front of a computer (like this big kid), only moving to go to the bathroom, get a snack, or to go sit in front of the TV for a few more hours.
4. Parental Influences: This can take many negative forms, not the least of which is the sedentary behavior exhibited by many parents. This trend can be seen in the rising numbers of overweight and obese adults. One of the most lasting and influential impacts on a child will be the examples set by the parents.
In parents’ defense, let it be acknowledged that in today’s family, it is often necessary for both parents to work outside the home. This, combined with the prevalence of fast food, perceived lack of time, stress, and a common lack of knowledge, and/or misconceptions about subjects such as exercise and healthy eating habits makes it easy for parents to provide a completely wrong example for their children, contributing to the children’s’ obesity problems while believing that they are doing everything they can to provide healthy meals and a good home.
RESULTS OF CHILDHOOD OBESITY
If obesity in childhood were something that would end when the child becomes an adult, it would still be a problem. While many still believe the main results are something so apparently simple as low self-esteem, depression, or poor social interactivity, or that the child will simply “grow out of it” there are results more deadly to be concerned about.
Childhood obesity causes and results usually carry over into adulthood predisposing the adult to such problems as higher risks for heart disease, cancer, debilitating effects of arthritis, diabetes, sleep apnea, strokes, and high blood pressure to name a few. Childhood obesity will also commonly result in an earlier onset of these diseases and conditions than would be found in an unfit adult with a fit childhood.
However, for me, one of the worst facts is that these conditions are being seen more and more in the children themselves. They are not waiting for adulthood to begin their attacks.
So, what can be done?
SOLUTIONS FOR CHILDHOOD OBESITY
As with adults, the bottom line answer for obese and overweight children is the effective combination of two important lifestyle choices:
1. Regular Exercise
2. Healthy Nutrition
Since parents are generally the most important people in the child’s world, they are the ones who need to accept the first responsibility for turning this problem around, at least in their own children. Some steps they can take are simple yet effective.
They can encourage more outside play, for example. While enrolling a child in some sort of fitness activity such as gymnastics or martial arts can have all sorts of benefits for the child, an active day is the quickest and easiest “exercise” fix. Chores can be assigned, children can be encouraged to walk or bicycle when practical rather than waiting for a ride from Mom or Dad. TV and computer time can be limited, or even “bought” with activity.
While nutrition is a broad subject, basic nutritional choices often come down to “good” versus “bad”. For example, what’s better for your child, a slice of apple pie or an apple? This is not to say that children should always be denied treats, but they should be doled out responsibly, and healthy alternatives should become commonplace in the home.
Last, but not least, few things will help a child improve in health, fitness, happiness or anything else more than a parent’s good example. They ARE watching, you know, and they will behave as you behave…sooner or later!
So, get up off the couch, grab a glove and go play catch with your child…or take them for a walk or a swim. Patch the bicycle tire, or have them take turns with you mowing part of the yard or raking leaves. Some kids are aching to have their parents do SOMETHING with them.
You might even find you are dropping a few pounds yourself!