As reported by the New Britain Herald, November 18, 2005.

Childhood Obesity Epidemic

By Jennifer Schultz

WASHINGTON -- A fourth of Connecticut’s 6- to 17-year-olds are considered overweight, while a conservative estimate puts the number of obese children at 12 percent of this age group, according to a new study released Wednesday.

The research project, from the University of Connecticut’s Public Health Program, assembled data from more than 130 communities around the state.

Obesity, now considered an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is blamed for a host of physical, social and economic problems. In Connecticut, as with the nation, children in certain groups face a greater risk of becoming obese. Childhood obesity rates, for example, are higher in lower socioeconomic communities. Race and ethnicity are also factors, with African-American and Latino children more likely to be obese than white children.

At Diloreto Elementary School, school nurse Patty King can see the growing problem firsthand.

"Childhood obesity is getting more prevalent," she said. "Children are not exercising as much, they’re not getting outside and playing as much."

In lower socioeconomic communities, she said, parents are more likely to opt for quick and less expensive meal options, which generally spell poor nutrition.

She worries that childhood obesity may follow the same trend as asthma, another chronic health condition afflicting children and adults at alarming rates. Instances of asthma in the United States have doubled over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In the past three decades, data from the centers show, the rate of childhood obesity nationwide has more than tripled for children 6 through 11; it has doubled for children 2 through 5 and 12 through 19.

Though Connecticut has cause for concern, the state has a lower childhood obesity rate than the national average.

With excess weight comes a greater risk of developing health problems. Obese children face an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and sleep disorders. They are more likely to be depressed and have low self-esteem. Among their peers and in society, they are faced with the stigma and negative stereotypes associated with being overweight. And obese children may be the targets of bullying and be marginalized in social settings.

"What we found the most startling is the severity of the problem, that is, the number of children suffering from adult diseases because they are obese or overweight," Luce Buhl, a graduate student who worked on the university study, said in a press release. For instance, obese children have an additional risk factor for heart disease, and they are more likely to experience bone and joint problems.

Children who are overweight are likely to carry the condition with them into adulthood. This creates a burden on the individual and the general public -- which picks up a good chunk of the tab for obesity-related health care.

"In 2000, an estimated $117 billion was spent for health-related expenditures due to obesity, with direct costs accounting for an estimated $61 billion," according to a Government Accountability Office report requested by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and others. The report also says, "Nearly half of all medical spending related to adult obesity is financed by the public sector, through Medicaid and Medicare."

The obesity epidemic is a complex issue, and health officials differ over how exactly to combat the problem. Nutrition and physical activity are key determinants of weight and overall health. Genetics also plays a role. But the university study confirmed what other national studies have found, that social and environmental circumstances may create obstacles for families in shopping for healthy food and providing a safe place outside for kids to play.

Twenty-five graduate students in the university’s public health department were instructed a year ago to examine the issue of childhood obesity in Connecticut. Katie Zito, one of the student researchers, said the group was surprised to find out the state does not monitor obesity. After crunching numbers and partnering with 130 community organizations statewide for their research, they gathered what Zito called "a book’s worth of information."

Zito said local and state officials will receive a copy of the report, along with the Public Health Department, which contributed to the study.