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Second article in series on childhood obesity

November 12, 2010

Note: This is the second article in a four-part series on Childhood Obesity presented by the Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation. Corresponding Webisodes are available for viewing on www.missionhealthyliving.org.

CHILDHOOD OBESITY: THE RISK FACTORS, WARNING SIGNS AND LONG-TERM EFFECTS

By: Dr. Laurie Betts, Program Officer, Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation

Too often, parents make excuses why their child is overweight, or worse, not even realize that their weight is becoming a problem. “It’s baby fat, she’ll out grow it.” “He’s just a good eater.” “She is just big-boned.” “His dad is big too, it’s in the family.” Unfortunately, ignoring the warning signs that your child is gaining weight or is already obese can have significant effects on their current and future physical health and surprisingly, their psychological health, too.

A recent White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President, Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation, released some startling information—childhood obesity has become an epidemic in America and it is now considered a national health crisis. The report goes on to say that the epidemic of childhood obesity is costing more than $3 billion a year in direct medical expenses and that is likely to rise if not stopped. According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, approximately nine million American children over six years old are considered obese. In addition, one study found that obese six to eight year-olds were approximately ten times more likely to become obese adults than children with lower body mass indexes (BMI).

It is not considered normal for a child to be overweight. It is important that parents take the responsibility to feed their children healthy foods and monitor their intake in the early years, so that good eating habits stay with them for life. However, all too often, it is easier to let children self-monitor what they are eating due to their or your schedule. The reality is that parents need to be just as concerned about what their children eat as they are about teaching them not to get into cars with strangers.

Risk Factors for Childhood Obesity
There are a number of factors that can contribute to a child being overweight; in fact, the tendency can actually start before birth. If the mother uses tobacco, gains excessive weight or has diabetes, her child has an increased risk of being obese during the preschool years. If the child has a higher birth weight, has rapid weight gain in the first year of life or develops body fat in the preschool years, he or she has an increased risk of being obese by age seven.

Other risk factors include:
Diet – regularly eating high-calorie foods such as baked goods, fast food, fried food, vending machine snacks, sugary drinks, candy and desserts can easily cause a child to gain weight. All these foods lack significant nutritional value and are high in sugar, fat and calories.

Lack of exercise – children tend to spend more time in front of the TV, the computer and video games and less time outside playing sports, walking and riding bikes. Children who do not exercise much are likely to gain weight because they are not burning enough calories.

Family history – if the child comes from a family of overweight people or if one or both parents are obese, he or she is more likely to put on excess weight, especially if the parents do not eat well and high-calorie food is always available and exercise is not encouraged.

Psychological factors – children can overeat due to stressful school or home life situations. They also can turn to food to cope with any strong emotions or problems, or to fight boredom.

Family factors – parents buy the groceries, and if they are buying high-calorie or convenience foods, this is probably contributing to a child’s weight problem. Parents should limit the child’s exposure to these types of foods.

Socioeconomic factors – children from low-income backgrounds are unfortunately at higher risk. It takes both time and resources to make healthy eating and exercise a family priority.

Warning Signs
In addition to the risk factors for childhood obesity, there are definite warning signs a parent can watch for that could indicate your child is already overweight or on the path to becoming obese.

1. Weight gain – this is definitely a sign that your child is probably not eating correctly, especially if your child is a teenager. Teens are usually in a growth phase, and they should be absorbing energy from their food, not putting on unnecessary pounds and getting obese.

2. Inactivity – if your child starts to become overweight, he or she will most likely become less active and lethargic. Children need to be active in order to develop properly. The amount of physical education they get in school is not enough. Exercising as a family can help assure your child is getting enough physical activity.

3. Depression – this is a very serious condition, and if you are concerned your child may be depressed, always seek professional help. Depressed children often overeat, seeking solace in food. This can lead to obesity and eating disorders.

4. Improper Eating – if children are not eating the healthy meals you’ve prepared, there is a good chance they have been snacking on junk food during the day or after school.

5. Meal Skipping – this could lead to binging or digestive problems. It is important to discourage children from skipping a meal because it will not help them lose weight, but it could actually lead to weight gain.

6. Food Obsession – when your child starts to turn to food instead of friends and family for support or comfort, this can be an unhealthy association and lead to obesity, as well as other problems.

7. Continual Snacking – this is a bad habit that will follow children into adulthood. Have healthy snacks on hand for after-school treats. It will help alleviate hunger pangs, but offer nutritional value.

Short- and Long-Term Health Effects
Ultimately, being overweight as a child puts the child at increased risk for having problems, both in the short term and the long term, with the child’s physical, social and emotional well-being.

Physical complications include:
– Type 2 diabetes
– High blood pressure and high cholesterol
– Asthma and other breathing problems
– Sleep apnea, a condition in which your child may snore, have abnormal breathing, or stop breathing while asleep
– Early puberty or menstruation due to hormone imbalances of being overweight at an early age
– Gallstones
– Liver problems

Social and emotional complications include:
– Suffering from low self-esteem and bullying
– Behavior and learning problems
– Depression

What Are We doing?
The Report to the President is hopeful that we are prepared to fight this epidemic through knowledge of the causes and risk factors for obesity. In addition, the report outlines what we can do as a country, as individual communities and as families to stop the epidemic.

In February 2010, Michelle Obama launched her Let’s Move initiative to the nation. It is designed to get healthier foods in schools, give parents support to make healthier choices for their children, and get families to be active together. For more information on this program, go to www.letsmove.gov.

The Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation continues to make strides in changing the health habits of area residents. The Foundation funds programs and services through grants to area organizations and schools that focus on teaching children and their families to live healthier lives.

About the Series – Childhood Obesity
This four-part article series was developed by the Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation. Corresponding Webisodes featuring local experts can be found on http://www.missionhealthyliving.org. The first article discusses how childhood obesity has become a national epidemic. The third article will discuss what schools are doing across the nation, the state of Pennsylvania and in Greater Pottstown to combat childhood obesity. The final article will focus on what parents and children can do to start to change their habits, lose weight and live healthier lives.

About the Foundation
The Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation’s mission is to enhance the health and wellness of area residents, providing education, funding and programs that motivate people to adopt healthy lifestyles. Visit www.pottstownfoundation.org for more information about the Foundation. Discover Pottstown area’s new online community at www.missionhealthyliving.org to learn and share great information on how to lead a healthier life!

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