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Health Center Today, June 28, 2011

Preventing Obesity in Kids

By Carolyn Pennington

Photo of boy playing on a jungle gym made of ropes

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States - triple the rate from just one generation ago.

Dr. Larry Scherzer, a Health Center pediatrician says, “Overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults unless they adopt and maintain healthier patterns of eating and exercise. There is a real danger that today’s young people will be known as ‘Generation O’ unless they adopt major lifestyle changes.”

Summer is a great time to try and get your child’s weight under control. The warmer weather means more opportunities to hike, bike, and swim. Fresh fruits and vegetables are more plentiful and can be easily added to your child’s diet for healthier, lower-calorie options.

How Do I Know If My Child Is Overweight?
A child is overweight if he or she is heavier than 85 percent of other children who are the same age and height. Obesity most commonly begins in childhood between ages 5 and 6, and during adolescence. Studies have shown that a child who is obese between ages 10 and 13 has an 80 percent chance of becoming an obese adult.

What Causes Obesity?
“In general, obesity occurs over time when a person eats more calories than his or her body burns up,” says Scherzer. Obesity in childhood and adolescence can be related to poor eating habits (overeating or bingeing); lack of exercise; family history of obesity; medical illnesses (endocrine, neurological problems); medications (steroids, certain psychiatric medications); stressful life events or changes (separation, divorce, moving, death, abuse); family and peer problems; low self-esteem; and depression or other emotional problems. Although certain medical disorders can cause obesity, less than 1 percent of all obesity cases are caused by physical problems.

What Are the Risks of Obesity?
There are many risks and complications associated with obesity. Physical consequences include increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, breathing problems and trouble sleeping. “Obesity also has an emotional impact,” says Scherzer. Teenagers with weight problems tend to have lower self-esteem and be less popular with their peers. Depression and anxiety can result.

How Can Obesity Be Avoided?
Here are some tips to help you keep your child at a healthy weight:

  • Don’t make your child eat when he or she isn’t hungry.
  • Don’t use food to comfort or reward. Don’t offer dessert as a reward for finishing a meal.
  • Offer your child a healthy diet. “In general, a diet should emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, be high in fiber, and be low in fatty or fried foods,” says Scherzer. “Soft drinks should be an occasional treat, not an everyday beverage. Sometimes, children eat too much food that in smaller amounts is healthful. A child can drink too much milk or juice, for example, or eat salads that are loaded with fatty, creamy salad dressing. Ask your doctor or a dietitian to teach you about the right kinds of food to feed your child.”
  • Don’t eat at fast-food restaurants more than once a week.
  • Limit how much TV your child watches. “Also limit computer time,” says Scherzer. Instead, get your child interested in doing something active, like riding a bicycle or going for a walk.
  • Make sure your child is getting regular exercise at least five days a week in addition to physical education in school. Look into basketball, swimming, indoor soccer or other sports programs during the winter.
  • Teach your child good eating and exercise habits now to help him or her have a healthy life. Research shows if one parent is obese, there is a 50 percent chance that the children also will be obese. However, when both parents are obese, the children have an 80 percent chance of becoming obese. “A weight management plan for a child can often benefit other members of the family,” says Scherzer.

How Can I Help My Child Lose Weight?
The best way to lose weight is to eat healthier and exercise more. Talk to your child’s doctor about the best ways for your child to lose weight. “Also, it’s important to positively support your child,” says Scherzer. Parents can improve their child’s self-esteem by emphasizing his or her strengths and positive qualities rather than just focusing on the weight problem.