Profile of Obese Children
At one time, an overweight child was more the exception than the rule. But these days, the number of obese children in the United States is increasing at an alarming rate.
The American Obesity Association (AOA) says that in 2000 -- the latest statistics available -- 15.3 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were obese, as were 15.5 percent of those ages 12 to 19. This compares with 7 percent of children ages 6 to 11 and 5 percent of those 12 to 19 in 1976.
"We now estimate that very close to one-fifth of American children are obese," says Sara Blumenschein, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist and clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center in Dallas.
Up to 80 percent of children who are obese remain overweight as adults. Obesity in children is more prevalent in the Northeast, followed by the Midwest, South and West. It is also more prevalent in cities than in rural areas.
Childhood obesity is more than numbers on a scale. Nutritional experts are relying more on the Body Mass Index (BMI) to determine an ideal weight.
Too little exercise, too much junk food
The rise in childhood obesity can be tied to youngsters' getting too little exercise -- whether because of watching too much television (which also increases exposure to fast-food and candy advertising) or spending too much time playing video games and using computers.
In addition, more duel-income and single-parent households can mean more visits to fast-food restaurants, where most of the foods are high in calories and fat. Many parents strapped for time find it more convenient to eat out or buy take-out food instead of preparing a meal at home after a day at work.
Plus, schools continue to reduce the number of required physical-education classes, while at the same time providing students with soft-drink and candy machines in hallways and lunchrooms. In some schools, however, these vending machines have been changed to offer more healthful choices such as fresh fruit and fruit juices.
Genetics and race play a role, too. Children of overweight parents are at a greater risk of obesity themselves, and recent studies have found nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight. African American and American Indian children are more at risk for obesity than are children of other racial backgrounds.
Although excess weight can harm a child's self-esteem -- few kids like the nicknames "tubbo" and "fatty" -- the physical damage is just as bad. Many children who are obese already have high cholesterol and high blood pressure, both of which increase a child's risk for heart disease and diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Sleep apnea can be a serious problem for obese children, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which a person's breathing is interrupted many times during the night. Sleep apnea can cause learning and memory problems in children.
"Obese children also are at risk for liver problems, hypertension, endocrine imbalance, gallbladder disease and joint disease," says Dr. Blumenschein. Obese children also are more likely to have asthma.
Turn it around
Preventing obesity in children requires helping them increase their physical activity and decrease the number of calories they eat.
"It's pretty straightforward," says Dr. Blumenschein. "Children should exercise every day and eat foods high in fiber and low in calories and fat."
Parents can help by buying fruit, vegetables and other low-fat foods at the grocery store and serving their children kid-sized portions of food at home instead of stopping at fast-food restaurants. Signing up children for team sports such as soccer, basketball and swimming can keep them active -- and burning calories -- year-round.
The AOA also suggests the entire family become involved in regular physical outings that include walking and bicycling, and that family vacations focus on activities such as hiking or biking instead of just sitting on a beach. When looking for activities, choose those that won't be difficult or embarrassing for your children.
More suggestions for parents
Here are additional tips from the NIH on preventing childhood obesity:
If your child has a weight problem, be supportive rather than critical. Encourage good health habits.
Limit the amount of time your child can watch television or play video games. Enforce that limit.
Mealtime should be spent around the table, not in front of the television. Make it an enjoyable, unhurried time.
Food should not be used as a reward or punishment. If you believe that your child should be on a diet, discuss it with your child's doctor and nutritionist.
Offer healthful snacks, including fruits and vegetables; low-fat cheese or plain yogurt; and cookies such as fig bars, graham crackers, gingersnaps or vanilla wafers.
March 21, 2017
Godsey, Cynthia M.S., M.S.N., APRN,Laura FiveashLaura Fiveash DrPH MPH RD