The Biggest Health Risk for Kids—Obesity!
When it comes to childhood miseries, there is little more tragic than the woe of the overweight child.
From the trauma of taunting and teasing, to the embarrassment and pain of physical limitations, illness, disease and emotional difficulties, children are uniquely vulnerable to lifelong injury from excessive weight carried in the early years.
And all the research seems to indicate that it will indeed be lifelong, because contrary to age-old belief, heavy children generally do not grow out of their overweight, rather, they grow in to it.
With two-thirds of American adults now overweight, it’s no surprise that the numbers among children are skyrocketing, as well. That’s because unlike adults, who must make their own dietary choices, children are largely at the effect of the nutritional environment in which they are raised, in the home, in school, in their neighborhoods and communities.
Children are being drawn into obesity unawares, and by the time they’re old enough to take more control of their dietary practices, the groundwork has long since been laid; poor eating habits are already entrenched, and the excess weight has already become a fact of life.
Government statistics indicate that only two percent of American children have a diet that actually conforms to the recommendations established with the Food Guide Pyramid, and the average child’s daily caloric intake has increased by almost 200 calories a day over the last 15 years, concentrated in foods and beverages high in sugar and simple, low-nutrient carbohydrates.
Almost a quarter of American children are now overweight, with more than 15 percent of both children and adolescents actually clinically obese already.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) classifies children and adolescents in the 85th percentile of weight –that is, those heavier than 85 percent of children their age—as being overweight, while those in the 95th percentile are classified as being severely overweight, or obese.
But whether it’s referred to as obese or severely overweight, the consequences are serious. Children who have weight problems, even in early childhood, are twice as likely to be obese in adulthood, and to have the significant health problems associated with obesity. The odds are very poor that they’ll reach and maintain normal weight for their lifetimes.
But their troubles start while they are yet young. The American Heart Association finds that 25 percent of children aged 5 to 10 already have the early signs of heart disease, including elevated blood cholesterol or high blood pressure. Other studies indicate that as many as 10 percent of adolescents may already have plaque buildup in their arteries.
Type 2 diabetes used to be called “adult onset,” but not anymore, since more than half of new cases are now found in children. By the mid ‘90s, there were ten times as many cases of Type 2 diabetes in adolescents as there were only 15 years earlier.
Asthma, sleep apnea and other respiratory difficulties plague the overweight child, and there are painful orthopedic problems from the strain caused by chronic excess weight on growing limbs and joints.
Some experts say that perhaps the most tragic effects of overweight on children are the social and emotional consequences for youngsters who are unlike their peers: depression, eating disorders, withdrawal and low self-esteem.
In the end, the overall life expectancy of an obese child can be cut short by as much at 13 years from that of a healthy-weight child.
There are specific strategies for helping overweight children that differ from those employed for adults, but many medical professionals don’t have any idea what those might be.
Indeed, in a 1999 federal study, more than a third of the doctors and nurses and about half of the dietitians surveyed said they don’t treat overweight children if the patient doesn’t show signs of other medical problems related to obesity. And most said they won’t start treatment in kids who don’t already want to control their weight, because attitude is a critical component for success.
But obesity is hard to treat at any age, and without question, prevention is the best hope for our children, because as we age, it becomes harder and harder to lose excess weight. Physical changes occur that make it physiologically more difficult, and the poor habits that led to the initial gain become more and more ingrained.
Yet for responsible parents and adults, once we understand what’s really at stake for the overweight child, it also gets harder and harder to ignore the progressing problem.
THICK & THIN
If your child is already overweight, understand that there is hope. In fact, your child’s best hope is to start right now! Research shows it’s much easier for people to unlearn unhealthy habits as children than it ever will be as adults. The key for kids is the consistency and participation of caring adults in the overweight child’s environment.