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Childhood Obesity

America's growing epidemic

August 4, 2013
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

Obesity is not new. The word itself was first used in the 1600s, but it is used far more today than ever before. According to health care professionals, obesity has become an epidemic, especially when it comes to children.

Center for Disease Control & Prevention research states that in 1980, around seven percent of America's children under 12 years of age were considered obese, or heavy due to an excess amount of fat. By 2010, that number had increased to nearly 20 percent. The same research shows that one in three children (including teens) is considered obese or overweight - exceeding weight recommendations for height due to fat, water, bone structure or a combination of these factors. That is more than 23 million children and is greater than the populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego and San Antonio combined.

What are some of the implications? Financially, childhood obesity costs top $14 billion per year now as obesity-related costs for the total American population are $147 billion annually. As these generations age, the costs in care, insurance and prescription drugs will increase accordingly with the ailing population. Children on Medicaid are six times as likely to be treated for obesity-related illnesses as children with regular health insurance.

Article Photos

Ryan Mairs, left, of Ashland, Ohio, does a lot of activities with son Caleb, 3, who had fun riding the paddle boats at Oglebay Park with dad. Doctors say parents need to provide the examples for healthier living.

The health concerns are serious. Overweight and obese children and teens face up to a 60 percent increased risk of developing asthma, says a report from the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research. Of more concern are the health issues that were once considered "older adult" diseases: type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sleep apnea, as well as an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease. Sixty percent of overweight children have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and 25 percent have two or more risk factors. Compounding these statistics is the fact that overweight children will most likely be overweight or obese adults, increasing the risks and health problems.

Dr. Sheela Rao, pediatrician at Wheeling Hospital, voices the same concerns. She says that while there is a raised awareness of child obesity, she has definitely seen an increase in overweight and obese patients in her 11 years in practice and calls it a "serious life issue" at this point. She is especially concerned about the number of teens developing type 2 diabetes and the risk of hypertension and adds that Wheeling Hospital has a pediatric endocrinologist on staff because of the obesity problem.

"These diseases can only be maintained after they set in," she notes. "But if they are caught at an early enough stage, they are reversible. This is done many times through portion control and physical activity. Sometimes the patient is back to normal health after only a few months, but more people developing these diseases now at earlier ages will create a huge health burden on society in the future."

Another physical problem Dr. Rao is seeing more often in children caused by too much body weight is knee problems, also once considered an "adult" health issue. Weight and obesity are now being linked to higher risks of Hodgkin's lymphoma and cancer, including breast, ovarian, colon, esophageal, kidney, pancreatic, thyroid, cervical and prostate.

She adds that the social stigma of being overweight also leads to depression and its complications. Other studies are showing that overweight and obese children miss school about 20 percent more than other students.

Experts agree that the reason for this shift is "energy imbalance": taking in more calories than are expended through regular activity. Children have become sedentary, especially after school, when past generations played outside, walked to and from school and did chores. Today's children watch television, surf the internet and text. Schools are cutting back on sports programs, and not all families can afford teams and activities outside of the school.

There are after school programs that are required by the State of Ohio to provide 20 to 80 percent of children's time doing physical activities, depending on the program. At Union Local's 21st Century Community Learning Center, the school day begins with jump roping between 6:30 and 7:30. They utilize The Ohio State University Extension program for other after school activities and offer karate, dance, basketball, Wii Fit and Wii Games. Union Local also uses their nature trail for additional fitness activities.

Other fitness programs, like Movercise Minnies in St. Clairsville and Wheeling, are offered at recreation centers or churches.

Health experts recommend that children between ages 6 and 17 get at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous exercise. Aside from controlling weight, exercise reduces anxiety and stress, builds healthy bones and muscles and helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Regular exercise also improves academic performance and concentration, leading to better test scores and grades.

A Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2011 found that of participating high school students in Ohio, 75 percent did not meet the minimum recommendation of 60 minutes per day for physical activity, and 64 percent did not attend phys ed classes in school. In West Virginia, those figures were 71 percent and 64 percent, respectively.

In addition, 31 percent of the Ohio and West Virginia students spent more than three hours per day watching television. In Ohio 27 percent and in West Virginia 32 percent also spent at least three hours per day on the computer on average school days.

The other part of the equation is diet. Since the 1960s, families have begun eating more processed food that is cheap and easy to prepare: boxed macaroni and cheese, packaged breads, frozen pizza and children's breakfast cereals. Unfortunately most processed foods contain refined sugars, fats and chemicals that contribute empty calories and little nutritional value to the daily diet. Busy parents and students also opt for fast food several times per week, most of it fried or deep fried.

Of great concern to health experts is the amount of pop and energy drinks today's children consume. One of the most popular drinks is PepsiCo's Mountain Dew. One 20 oz. bottle contains 290 calories, 77 grams of carbohydrates (all sugar) and 91 mg of caffeine. One cup of coffee contains 95 mg of caffeine.

PepsiCo is now marketing a new version of Mt. Dew called Kickstart, a would-be energy drink, though they've categorized it under "juices." While there are 80 calories per 16 oz. can, there are still 19 grams of sugar (high fructose corn syrup) and 92 mg of caffeine. The drink is 5 percent juice. It is ultra-sweet with added artificial sweeteners, 35 mg sucralose (Splenda) and 42 mg of acesulfame potassium (Ace K.) That is the equivalent of 3.5 regular packets of Splenda, and Ace K is 200 times the sweetness of sugar. Studies over the last few years show that diet drinks actually increase overall calorie intake.

In the previously mentioned youth survey, 11 percent of Ohio students said they drink three or more cans, bottles or glasses of carbonated beverages per day. In West Virginia, the figure is 16 percent.

This means that these teens are taking in approximately 300 to 900 additional calories with no nutritional value - vitamins, proteins, minerals, fiber - while sitting in school all day and for at least three hours in front of the television at night.

Dr. Rao says that parents need to play an active role from the beginning. This means being outside with the kids, taking them to the park and enrolling them in sports or other physical activities like dance. Parents should monitor what the children eat and limit fast food and processed food. She adds that keeping up with doctor visits is important to keep kids on a healthy track.

A recent article in the New York Times states that doctors are now "prescribing" fruits and vegetables through a new program at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx and Harlem Hospital Center.

A nonprofit organization called Wholesome Wave began this program and already runs similar programs in six other states. Families of obese patients are given one dollar per day per family member in Health Bucks to use at local farmers markets for up to four months. Family members are monitored by the doctors, and the program results are encouraging.

Last week, a mother of a healthy three-year-old said her pediatrician is already treating two- and three-year-olds for obesity. The Children's Defense Fund website states, "If childhood obesity trends continue, experts predict it could cut two to five years off the lifespan of the average child in America - making this the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents."

For more information on after school programs, contact your local school or recreation center. For information on Movercise classes, contact Kathleen O'Connor at (304) 277-1122.



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