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Ways to Help Avoid Health Problems in Overweight Children

2/18/2002:   In the United States, at least one child in five is overweight (based on height, weight, sex, and age). In the last two decades, this number has increased by more than 50%, and the number of “extremely overweight” (obese) children has nearly doubled. Projections are that soon one in three children will be overweight.

Media attention has focused on the causes and dangers of obesity, unhealthy diets, and lack of exercise—particularly among youth—since these topics were highlighted in the recent Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity. For the most relevant portion on youth, go to www.surgeongeneral.gov/topics/obesity, then click on Overweight in Children and Adolescents. The same web page has links to a press release, other fact sheets, and the entire report.

Overweight children are at high risk of becoming overweight adults with higher risks for health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and some forms of cancer. The Weight-control Information Network (WIN), sponsored by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, notes that common causes of excess weight in children are genetic factors, lack of physical activity (on average, 24 hours a week watching television), unhealthy eating patterns, endocrine disorders, in a few cases, and a combination of these factors. The WIN website, www.healthcite.com, emphasizes that shared family behaviors, such as eating and activity habits—not just genetic factors influence body weight.

A health care provider is the best person to determine whether a child has a weight problem. For instance, boys normally have an increase in weight followed by a growth spurt in height. The WIN website provides tips on family involvement, ways to support a child who is overweight (or, conversely, underweight and overly body conscious), family activities to increase exercise, and good eating habits (including healthy snacks) for the whole family. Recommended reading and additional resources are also listed.

The Mayo Clinic electronic newsletter has several pages on childhood obesity, a “complex preventable disease.” (Go to www.mayoclinic.com, click on Health Living Centers, then on Family Life, then on Parenting. Choose two pages: Childhood Obesity and Childhood Obesity Parenting Advice.) These articles give useful tips and note that:
  • Obese children also tend to grow taller more quickly. Others then judge them as “immature” or “dumb” because of their apparent rather than actual ages.
  • Only 25% of school-age children take physical education classes, and most adults serve only as sedentary role models.
  • Medical complications of obesity in children include Type 2 diabetes (until recently seen only in adults), sleep apnea, high cholesterol, heart disease, high insulin levels, and depression.
  • Obese children as young as ages 3 to 5 face prejudice from others: being called names, being excluded from activities, and having difficulty making friends. This rejection in turn encourages lone, sedentary activities, such as watching TV, playing video games, and using the Internet.

The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that almost 5 million children, ages 6 to 17, are considered obese (20% or more over their ideal weight). Many more are classified as overweight. If overweight or obesity is suspected, consult a health care professional. Three methods are used to calculate whether a child is overweight or obese: charts that compare weight-height ratio to same-age, same-sex peers; an abdominal skinfold test (a painless measurement of fat tissue); and a body mass index (see www.cdc.gov). For more information from the AHA, go to www.heartcenteronline.com. Click on “Patients,” then the A-Z topic center. Go to “C,” then scroll down to Childhood Obesity. This Web page suggests ways parents can help prevent weight gain and obesity: cut back on eating out, especially at fast food restaurants or takeout; serve smaller portions; and decrease dietary fat. The diet of most American children is 40% to 45% fat; the recommended level is about 30%.

The American Medical Association website, www.ama-assn.org, notes that 5% of the national health care budget, or $50 billion per year, is attributable to obesity and its complications, such as diabetes. Some clinics now find 50% of the new cases of Type 2 diabetes (formerly called “adult onset diabetes”) are in overweight youth. More than 50% of obese children ages 5 to 10 have at lease one risk factor for heart disease, and 25% have two or more. These risk factors become the serious and even fatal diseases of adulthood.

Information and tips on childhood obesity, specifically for parents and childcare providers, are the focus of www.childcare-ppin.com/ezine/health102.htm. The author, a registered dietitian, notes that childcare providers prepare or supervise some of the child’s meals, as well as exercise habits. Both parents and childcare providers observe and can influence peers’ behavior toward obese children. Childcare providers can also be aware of and can address parents’ attitudes about weight, because some cultures view extra weight as desirable or a sign of material success. Childcare providers can be aware of promoting healthy eating and exercise patterns, and body images, for all children.

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