Should We Be Worried About What Our Kids Weigh?
Patricia Zifferblatt | February 1, 2005

The simple answer is yes--it’s a growing concern. In January 2005, the American Heart Association released the following information in its annual statistical report on heart disease and stroke:

More than 10% of children ages 2 to 5 in the United States are overweight!

The statistics are from 2002, so what does that mean for today, in 2005? Many experts believe that childhood obesity rates have increased, and therefore the cry from all health professionals is loud and strong: “We must stop this trend and we must stop it now!”

The reason for this alarm is that studies show an obese or overweight child will most likely grow up to be an obese or overweight teenager and adult. And along with obesity come diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, joint degeneration, and other preventable diseases--not to mention the harm done to our kids’ school performance and self-esteem.

In 1994, 7% of children ages 2 to 5 were overweight, and by 2002, the figure had jumped to 10%. Instead of getting healthier and fitter, many of our children are going in the opposite direction.

What does this say about the future health of these children--and can we afford a young, sick society?
This information is shocking and alarming, since obesity is a major risk factor for many degenerative diseases in adults, and those diseases are showing up in children now:
  • According to the American Heart Association, over 60% of teens have at least two risk factors for heart disease.

  • Australian researchers have found plaque buildup in the arteries of kids as young as 6, and it’s increasingly common in North American preadolescents.

  • It’s estimated that one in three of today's 4-year-olds will develop Type 2 diabetes, a disease that parallels obesity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When you consider all the major diseases associated with diabetes, that development alone will overwhelm the U.S. healthcare system!
All those developments mean that the kidney disease and heart disease common today among people in their 50s and 60s (who developed Type 2 diabetes in their 40s) will start showing up in people in their 20s and 30s.

The rise in Type 2 diabetes at younger ages is particularly alarming because as the portion of a person’s lifetime spent as a diabetic increases, the likelihood also increases that a person will develop the more severe complications of diabetes: heart and kidney disease, stroke, stomach problems, skin disorders, foot problems, nerve damage, blindness, and limb amputation. The cost of treating all those conditions would be enormous, and the impact on quality of life for so many young people would be severe.

How does the information break down by ethnic background in the U.S.?
  • 11% of children of Mexican-American heritage are overweight
  • 8% of children of non-Hispanic black heritage are overweight
  • 10% of children of non-Hispanic, non-black heritage are overweight
Why is this happening?
Many experts blame the obesity problems of children as well as adults on too much junk food and too much sitting around watching television--more commonly referred to as poor eating habits combined with inactivity.

How did so many of our children so fat?
There seems to be a cultural belief among people of some nationalities that a fat child is a healthy child and a thin child is an unhealthy child. This may have been true 150 years ago when famine was a possibility and people of all ages had no choice but to be physically active, but in today’s world it’s completely untrue. There’s a big difference between being underweight, sick, and unhealthy, and being fit and very healthy, but thin. This belief is one we must work very hard to change.

The belief persists that “If it tastes good and you can afford it, then go for it.” Much of this belief comes from television advertising that glamorizes high-sugar and high-fat foods and drinks. Here’s an example:
  • There are about 150 calories in every can of regular soda pop, all of which are sugar calories. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate used for energy--but if children sit around watching television and drinking soda pop, what happens to the calories they’re drinking? The calories are converted to fat, and that fat is deposited throughout the body.

  • There are about 140-170 calories in every one-ounce package of potato chips--and how many children (or adults, for that matter) can eat just one ounce of chips? Add the calories of soda pop and chips, and you can see where this is going.

  • There are about 250 calories in a typical chocolate bar, most of which are fat calories, and the remainder are sugar calories.

  • There are about 325 calories in a fast-food cheese burger, without the fries. If your child also eats the fries, add about 225 calories for an average serving.
For too many children, that’s a typical day’s food choices! Does this sound like what your child eats?

As a pediatrician recently pointed out, "Poor nutrition and physical inactivity are big factors with Type 2 diabetes, but they also impact general health. And they establish a cycle. The more overweight a child becomes, the less active he becomes. And as he's more sedentary, he tends to eat more. Unless there's something that interrupts that cycle, it tends to spiral."

So let’s not put all the emphasis on diet--inactivity has mushroomed with the popularity of television, computers, and video games, plus the loss of physical education in schools. The good news is that many dangerous health conditions can be reversed with exercise, so our best approach would be to combine more exercise with a better diet.

How many calories does a child of 2 to 5 require every day?
This is a very good question that can only be answered by a physician, since all children of the same age are not the same height or frame.

For example, I have 2½-year-old grandsons who weigh about 36-38 pounds. They are slim but very muscular, since they are very active children. Television and DVDs are limited to certain hours, so the boys go outside and play, or they make up their own games as children have done from the beginning of time. In addition, their parents limit the amounts of junk and sugary foods that they are allowed to eat--an apple is a snack and potato chips are treats for a picnic, not for everyday eating. Breakfast consists of a scrambled egg, cottage cheese, and a slice of toast, followed by a piece of fruit and a graham cracker--not cereals featuring cartoon characters and loaded with sugar. Since the boys have always eaten this way, a healthy diet seems normal to them and they don’t complain.

A few months ago, a group of health professionals and parents who run a local city clinic in Grand Rapids came to us to discuss a joint venture aimed at teaching parents and particularly mothers how to provide a healthy diet for their children. One of the comments from a mother we heard when we started to make suggestions was this: “If I don’t give her Kool-Aid in her bottle, she cries.” This comment came from a mother whose 2½-year-old daughter was already overweight! Our response was, “Let her cry! Who started the child on Kool-Aid in a bottle in the first place--who got the child hooked on the sugary taste? And who’s the boss--you or your daughter?” No doubt this mother will face a lot of resistance as she improves her daughter’s diet, but it’s worth the effort.

The problem seems almost overwhelming--where do we start?
Parents are the child’s first teachers. Therefore, in order to help the children, we must first start with the parents. In order to raise healthy children, parents themselves must be taught how to eat and how to prepare foods that taste good but aren’t loaded with fat and sugar. Parents must be taught how to shop for healthy foods and not load up the cupboards with convenience foods high in fat and sugar for the kids to munch on. Parents and children must be encouraged to walk, exercise, dance, join a team sport, or enjoy some other activity that gets them away from hours in front of the television and computer.

Our work is cut out for us. Together we can all make the necessary changes in our personal lives, and then teach by example and practice. It’s up to us.

How healthy will our children be if we don’t step in and teach them how to live a healthier lifestyle? Can we afford a sick society? How about every one of us becoming a role model for our children--let’s start at home, and then we’ll go out and try to change the world!
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