Childhood Obesity—What Can Be Done?
OBESITY among children has reached epidemic proportions in many countries. The World Health Organization says that worldwide an estimated 22 million children under the age of five are overweight.
A national survey in Spain revealed that 1 out of every 3 children is either overweight or obese. In just ten years (1985-1995), childhood obesity tripled in Australia. In the last three decades, obesity in children aged 6 to 11 has more than tripled in the United States.
Childhood obesity is also extending to developing countries. According to the International Obesity Task Force, in some parts of Africa, more children are affected by obesity than by malnutrition. In 2007, Mexico occupied second place in the world, behind the United States, for childhood obesity. It is said that in Mexico City alone, 70 percent of the children and adolescents are either overweight or obese. Pediatric surgeon Dr. Francisco González warns that this may be “the first generation to die before their parents from the complications of obesity.”
What are the complications? Three are diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. These are health problems formerly considered characteristic mostly of adults. According to the U.S. Institute of Medicine, 30 percent of the boys and 40 percent of the girls born in the United States in the year 2000 have a lifetime risk of being diagnosed with obesity-related type 2 diabetes.
Surveys show an alarming trend among children. Climbing rates of obesity are leading to climbing rates of high blood pressure. “Unless this upward trend in high blood pressure is reversed, we could be facing an explosion of new cardiovascular disease cases in young adults and adults,” warns Dr. Rebecca Din-Dzietham of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.
What is behind this global epidemic of childhood obesity? While genetics can be a predisposing factor, the alarming increase in obesity in recent decades appears to indicate that genes are not the only cause. Stephen O’Rahilly, professor of clinical biochemistry and medicine at Cambridge University in England, declares: “Nothing genetic explains the rise in obesity. We can’t change our genes over 30 years.”
Commenting on the causes, the Mayo Clinic, in the United States, says: “Although there are some genetic and hormonal causes of childhood obesity, most excess weight is caused by kids eating too much and exercising too little.” Two examples illustrate the changing trend in eating habits today.
First, as working parents have less time and energy to prepare meals, fast food has increasingly become the norm. Fast-food restaurants have sprung up all over the world. One study reported that nearly a third of all children in the United States aged 4 to 19 eat fast food every day. Such foods are typically high in sugar and fats and are offered in temptingly large sizes.
Second, soft drinks have replaced milk and water as the beverage of choice. For example, Mexicans spend more each year on soft drinks, particularly colas, than on the ten most basic foods put together. According to the book Overcoming Childhood Obesity, just one 20-ounce [600 ml] soft drink a day can result in a gain of 25 pounds in a year!
As to the lack of physical activity, a study carried out by the University of Glasgow in Scotland found that the average three-year-old engages in “moderate to vigorous activity” for only 20 minutes a day. Commenting on that study, Dr. James Hill, professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado, said: “The increasingly sedentary nature of U.K. [United Kingdom] children is not unique and is being seen in most countries around the world.”
What Is the Solution?
Nutritionists do not recommend putting children on a restrictive diet, as this may compromise their growth and health. Rather, the Mayo Clinic states: “One of the best strategies to combat excess weight in your children is to improve the diet and exercise levels of your entire family.”—See the accompanying box.
Make healthful habits a family commitment. If you do, they will become a way of life for your children, carrying over into adulthood.
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WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
1 Buy and serve more fruits and vegetables than convenience foods.
2 Limit soft drinks, sweetened beverages, and high-fat sugary snack foods. Instead, offer water or low-fat milk and healthful snacks.
3 Use cooking methods that are lower in fat, such as baking, broiling, and steaming, instead of frying.
4 Serve smaller portions.
5 Avoid using food as a reward or as a bribe.
6 Do not allow children to skip breakfast. Skipping it may lead to overeating later.
7 Sit at the table to eat. Eating in front of a TV or a computer screen promotes consumption and lessens awareness of feeling full.
8 Encourage physical activity, such as bike riding, playing ball, and jumping rope.
9 Limit time spent on watching television, using the computer, and playing video games.
10 Plan active family outings, such as visiting the zoo, going swimming, or playing in the park.
11 Assign active chores to your children.
12 Set the example in healthful eating and exercise.
Sources: The National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic