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Child obesity super-sized to an epidemic

Posted April 24, 2006

Angie Gangi
News Editor

With her big blue eyes sparkling, an adorable little girl looks up from her car seat and says, “Mom will you buy me some diabetes?”

The little girl is in a commercial along with other children who also ask their parents to buy them grease, fat, obesity and a shorter life.  The California Healthy Families Program has been running this commercial to remind Californians of the serious health problems facing the growing number of overweight and obese children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of overweight children ages 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, going from 7 percent in 1980 to 18.8 percent in 2004.

“Things would be much better if parents weren’t willing to buy the wrong foods for their children,” said Cindy Denne, director of student health services at the University of La Verne.  “Parents need to create a healthy atmosphere and model good behavior for their children to follow.” 

Overweight children are more likely than children of normal weight to become overweight or obese adults, and therefore more “at risk for associated adult health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis,” according to the CDC.  The Surgeon General warns that type 2 diabetes, previously considered an adult disease, has increased dramatically in children and adolescents.

Such excess weight is affecting children’s safety as well as their health. 

There are about 283,000 children who are too big for the available types of car seats on the market, according to researchers at the Columbus Children's Research Institute.  Parents must buy special car seats to accommodate their child’s growing body or put their child in the car without the added protection of a seat.

According to the American Obesity Association, the bones and cartilage in growing children are in the process of developing and are not strong enough to bear such excess weight. As a result, obese children and adolescents suffer from a variety of orthopedic complications. In young children, excess weight can lead to bowing and overgrowth of leg bones.

Being overweight is the result of too many calories being consumed and too few calories being expended through physical activity.  A person’s stomach is about the size of his or her clenched fist, so a child’s stomach is much smaller than that of an adult.  Yet many children are being fed portions equal in size to what their parents eat.  Super-size menus at fast food restaurants contribute to the caloric overload that is stretching waistlines in adults and children. 

“Once students get to college, their eating habits are pretty much engrained, so I think the target of health education needs to be the younger children,” Denne said.

Teachers play an important role in the fight against obesity in children.  They are one of the main influences in a child’s life, and health education is just as important as any other lesson.

“It’s always been important for teachers to be involved in health education,” said Peggy Redman, durector of the ULV teacher education program and a professor of education.  “I’ve always said, while educating teachers, that whenever you work with children you are a part of a trio.” 

She added that the parent, child and teacher form an important triangle in the learning process.

Childhood obesity causes many problems and may seem overwhelming, but the following tips, published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, may help parents in the battle with obesity:

  • Can the soda. A recent study published in The Journal of Pediatrics shows most teenagers drink two 12-ounce cans of soda each day, accounting for about 300 calories. That means they are getting about 20 percent of their daily calories from added sugar, when current guidelines recommend only 10 percent of daily calories from that source.
  • Eat together as a family.
  • Have kids get more sleep. Stanford researchers found that sleep loss leads to higher levels of a hormone called gherlin, which triggers appetite.  It also leads to lower levels of a hormone called leptin, which tells your body its full.
  • Do not tell kids to clean their plate.  Kids are very good at regulating their food intake if parents let them.
  • Limit use of TV and video games. Research links watching television and playing video games to an increased likelihood of being overweight. Do not eat in front of the television.
  • Walk together as a family before eating dinner. Activity increases metabolism and seems to make people feel less hungry.
  • Practice what you preach. Parents are the most influential models kids have and obese kids tend to have obese parents.

“Right now, recess and physical education are getting pushed aside because (teachers) are trying to get their kids ready to pass tests in math and English,” Redman said.  “So we’ve lost our focus on educating the completely balanced human being, not just a person who can do math and English.”

Imbalance is the perfect word to describe the obesity epidemic facing America’s youth.  Overweight children are not just unhealthy; they are our future if we do not change our ways. 

Angie Gangi can be reached at agangi@ulv.edu.