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Living Large: Why Childhood Obesity’s Growth Must Be Slowed

By Martha Michael

Childhood Obesity

Like the feeling you get from the golden sun on a warm summer’s day, a sure sign of fall is the golden hue of school buses nosing through neighborhoods approaching their stops. It may be comforting to see that some things never change, but other trends are cause for concern. Childhood obesity is on the radar for public health experts because it’s a threat to the health and welfare of kids today.

Prevalence of Childhood Obesity

Obesity in America has been on the rise for generations, and medical experts consider obesity in kids and adolescents among the most problematic populations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19.7 percent of children between ages 2 and 19 are obese, a total of nearly 15 million kids and teens. The breakdown of obesity within age groups is as follows:

  • 12.7 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds
  • 20.7 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds
  • 22.2 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds

In the United States, some ethnic groups have a higher rate of overweight individuals than others. The prevalence of childhood obesity rank according to the following:

  • 26.2 percent of Hispanic children
  • 24.8 percent of non-Hispanic Black children
  • 16.6 percent of non-Hispanic White children
  • 9.0 percent of non-Hispanic Asian children

Health Problems Associated with Childhood Obesity

There are numerous threats to your health when you’re overweight, regardless of age. According to the Cleveland Clinic, to determine if a child is obese, the medical community uses body mass index, or BMI, which is calculated by dividing their weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared. They have an unhealthful level of body fat if their BMI measures at or above the 95th percentile of the CDC-specific growth charts.

Though a high BMI doesn’t directly determine your level of body fat, it’s a bellwether that indicates a potential problem. By measuring the size and growth patterns of pediatric patients, healthcare providers can conduct additional testing to see if a child needs a referral to address a weight-related problem.

There are numerous health issues for children that result from being overweight:

  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Sleep apnea
  • Asthma
  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • Stroke
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Colon or breast cancer
  • Fatty liver

Kids with weight problems also report experiencing mental anguish due to negative attention from peers. Being different from other kids in any way can invite teasing, which can affect the emotional state of a child. When a young person is overweight, it can lead to:

  • Bullying
  • Social isolation
  • Depression
  • Low self-image

Causes

Why some children experience excessive weight gain and others don’t is due to a complicated blend of factors. There’s a genetic component and a range of family circumstances that contribute to a child’s lifestyle options, such as eating habits and level of energy output in their routine.

Behavior

Parents and guardians are the first to determine mealtime and snack choices, and as kids get older, these become securely positioned as habits. Families with busy schedules tend to consume more “junk food,” which is high in sugar, fat, and calories, and are poor sources of vital nutrition. Another factor affecting weight gain is the family’s interest in activities that burn calories, such as sports or bicycling. When kids spend too much time on video games, at the computer, or watching TV, and not enough time engaging outdoors, the detrimental health effects of a sedentary lifestyle can catch up with them.

Genetics

Kids with obese parents or siblings are more likely to be heavy, though it’s not always the case. An article on HealthCorps.org says that genes impact weight gain more than you may think. Research shows that 35-40 percent of a child’s predisposition to gain weight is inherited. They found that genes cause up to 60 percent of obesity in some children.

An international study shows that each parent contributes approximately 20 percent to BMI outcomes, but kids who are thin seem to have less genetic connection to the parents than children struggling with obesity.

Socioeconomic Level

Like the value of your education and other aspects of life, where you live affects a child’s tendency to gain too much weight. The presence of food deserts in low-income areas make it more likely a kid will eat fast food instead of fresh fruit and vegetables. When cost is an issue, there is less opportunity for competitive sports and recreational centers. Familiarity with fast food chains and ads for such snacks as chips and sodas that target young consumers make it harder for kids to maintain a healthy weight.

Treatment

Less food and more energy output is a general strategy to solve the growing population of kids with obesity. Signing up kids for sports and using family time to play ball or go hiking are ways to help them develop a lifelong habit of exercising. Parents can shift to new ways of doing things that replace sedentary activities with movement.

An article in Science Daily touts the benefits of walking or cycling to school. Citing a study at the University of Cambridge involving more than 2,000 pre-school children, students who actively commute to school have a greater chance of maintaining a healthy weight. Researchers studied factors, including physical activity levels, body composition, and socioeconomic status; they found that active commuting contributes to lower body fat levels. Kids who ride to school miss an opportunity for daily exercise.

A program supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation encourages parents and schoolchildren to create a Walking School Bus. Adults take turns walking a group of kids to the neighborhood school, reducing the need for buses and providing physical activity for youngsters. The CDC recommends one adult per three children for kids 6 and under.

When you see a school bus come around the corner, it may remind you that it’s time for classroom learning, recess, and teacher appreciation. Hopefully it also means that kids get an education about diet, exercise, and lifestyle choices leading to a drop in childhood obesity rates. If Americans are going to reverse the upward trend in pounds on the scale -- and resulting health problems -- they need to change the way they roll.

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