Tackling the Childhood Obesity Epidemic
by Lisa Stead
Childhood obesity is an epidemic that is affecting most of the developed world, and the United States is no exception. While there may be a variety of factors contributing to the rise of obesity in our children, two of the main culprits are widely acknowledged to be poor diet and lack of exercise.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of children in the United States who are classed as obese has more than doubled between 1980 and 2010, and the number of adolescents has actually tripled. Worryingly, the figures show that over a third of children and adolescents were obese in 2010.
Why is obesity so bad?
Children who are obese can suffer serious health problems, both during their childhood and in later life. These problems can include high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and joint problems, as well as psychological issues to do with self-esteem and self-confidence.
Studies have shown that children who are obese are much more likely to be obese as adults and therefore have an increased risk of suffering adult health problems associated with excessive weight gain, such as heart disease, cancer and stroke.
A variety of different initiatives have been instigated to help counteract the growing childhood obesity problem, many of which aim to change children’s eating habits. Too many children are eating diets that contain excess calories, are heavy in sugar and saturated fat and don’t provide them with the necessary nutritional balance. When coupled with little or no exercise, this lifestyle can very quickly lead to excessive weight gain. Children need to be encouraged to eat less processed food and more fresh food, including fruit and vegetables, which provide them with more nutrition for fewer calories. Nutritionists have identified certain ‘superfoods’, which are so called because they have a very high nutritional value. Incorporating a variety of these superfoods, such as blueberries, seaweed or strawberries, into children’s everyday diets can give them an alternative to the less-healthy, calorie-laden food they are used to eating, and help give their nutritional intake a real boost.
Schools have been identified as key players in the fight against childhood obesity, as they provide the perfect opportunity for children to learn about healthy eating. Schools are also ideally placed to directly influence what children are eating through the provision of healthy school lunches.
The CDC has recognized the vital role that schools can play and has produced a series of guidelines for schools to follow that are designed to promote the benefits of healthy eating and taking regular physical exercise. Each guideline is backed up by separate implementation strategies to support schools in their work towards meeting the guidelines.
Studies have shown that initiatives to tackle the childhood obesity problem through changes in eating habits can be successful.
At the start of the year, the New York State Department of Health reported on the success of its new Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which it introduced in January 2009.
The program is designed to promote the benefits of good nutrition to women in low-income groups who are pregnant or have recently given birth, and also to children up to the age of five. The program provides them with food packages that offer nutritionally balanced food, including fruit and vegetables. It also provides advice on the best way to increase their levels of physical activity.
An analysis of the results of the program found greater levels of healthy eating amongst the program participants and a continuing drop in obesity levels over and above national trends.
“The new WIC food package was designed to promote healthier eating choices for children and we are excited by results that show it is helping to reduce pediatric obesity,” commented State Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H.
A CDC study has also revealed some positive findings regarding childhood obesity trends. Researchers looked at data relating to 27.5 million low income pre-school children across the United States and found drops in the incidence of obesity and extreme obesity.
The figures showed that the prevalence of extreme obesity increased from 1.75% in 1998 to 2.22% in 2003, but then fell to 2.07% by 2010.
Similarly, the figure for obesity rose from 13.05% in 1998 to 15.21% in 2003, but then decreased to 14.94% in 2010.
Researchers put these slight improvements down to the success of health and nutrition programs targeting mothers and young children similar to the New York State WIC program. The success of these programs suggests that the fight against childhood obesity can be won and children can be supported to live healthier and more active lives.