The percentage of overweight or obese children and adolescents has tripled since 1995. By 2030, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States’ population will include at least 32 million obese adults, many of whom are currently obese children and adolescents.
Why should we worry? As the childhood obesity epidemic has blossomed, so have rates of early-onset diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease. Perhaps more surprisingly, obesity in kids is also associated with increased rates of joint problems and injuries, skin disease and infections, poorer control of asthma, obstructive sleep apnea, kidney stones, gallstones and fatty liver disease.
Worst of all, obese kids evaluate their own quality of life similarly to ratings given by children with severe chronic or life-threatening diseases, such as cancer. They are also common targets of bullying and have profoundly low self-esteem, according to studies. Unsurprisingly, obese kids and teens also face higher rates of depression and anxiety, and are more likely to be associated with harmful behaviors, such as substance abuse and high-risk sexual activity. Primarily as a result of obesity, children of the current younger generation have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Maine is, unfortunately, ranked high among states with excess pounds. CDC data from 2008 show about one in every four or more adults were obese, and more than half were overweight in most counties. In 2004, more than one-quarter of Maine middle and high school students were obese. In the past 30 years, nationally, rates of obesity have doubled in children and tripled among teens.
We can point our fingers at myriad culprits: super-sized fast food, the federal farm subsidies that make processed unhealthy food so much cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables, kids glued to computer and TV screens, persistently low rates of breastfeeding, cuts in school physical education programs, working parents stuck with the television as baby sitter and an advertising industry that still aggressively sells sugar to kids.
As a family doctor, these statistics sometimes make me want to throw my hands in the air. What are we to do? And whose job is it to do anything? The government, doctors and health systems, schools, parents or kids themselves? New federal guidelines on school-meal calorie limits may be well-intended, but they may also be failing to recognize the different needs of each child and may be generating backlash against interventions in schools in general.
So, as the candy-filled holiday of Halloween passes by, to be followed by Thanksgiving feasting and Christmas baking, try to be mindful of the influence our choices have on our kids. Stemming the tide of this problem starts with each parent, each adult who cares for a child.
* At your children’s next checkup, make sure the doctor tells you if their weight is healthy for their height. Make a plan with your children’s doctor for any changes you need to make to get there.
* If your children are overweight or obese, the younger the are when you try to intervene and teach them healthier habits, the higher the odds they will grow into healthy adults.
* Regardless of your children’s current weight, limit their exposure to advertising that promotes fast food and unhealthy snacks. Even if you are good at saying no at the supermarket, once your children become teenagers, those advertisements may still have an impact on their choices.
* Help find ways for your children to be active every day. Limit screen time.. Have screen-free weeks or weekends.
You can use the guidelines of the Keep ME Healthy “5-2-1-0” initiative from Maine Quality Counts to start making healthy changes for your children, regardless of their current weight: They should have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day (not juice), no more than two hours of screen time (less is better), at least one hour of moderate physical activity (more is better) and no sugary drinks. Since no one would deprive a child of trick-or-treating fun, ration what’s left of that Halloween candy (or secretly throw some of it out), using it to replace other desserts.
It’s clear the epidemic of childhood obesity has multiple causes — almost a perfect storm, if you will, of cultural, societal and economic factors designed to add unhealthy weight to our kids. But with each obese child heading toward obese adulthood also is an opportunity to create lifestyle changes that mean better lifelong mental and physical health.
Jessica Bloom-Foster is a clinical faculty physician at Eastern Maine Medical Center Family Medicine Residency Program in Bangor.