Understanding Childhood Obesity

Len Saunders

Childhood obesity has become so epidemic in this country that kids today risk having shorter life spans than their parents. The American Heart Association reports that about one in three American kids is overweight or obese. Those statistics have nearly tripled in about 50 years. As a result, many young children today are plagued with risk factors for heart disease, including high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, high triglycerides, raised insulin, physical inactivity, and obesity. Many also suffer from low self-esteem and depression. Is there a solution in sight?

First, we need to understand that there is not one magical formula to fix every single overweight child, since gaining weight can be environmental, emotional, physical, or inheritable. Simply put, every child is different and needs a unique plan of action to maintain a healthy weight. Ad campaigns, support from government officials, and even the enthusiasm from First Lady Michelle Obama are all notable, but dramatic change will take place at the grassroots level. Each individual child needs support, consistency, motivation, mentors, tough love, and education on a healthy lifestyle.

According to Sarah Armstrong, a childhood obesity expert at Duke University Medical Center, "Solving childhood obesity is a directive that will require unprecedented levels of cooperation between multiple sectors" from schools and public health agencies to businesses and families. "What is lacking currently is a universally-recognized understanding that childhood obesity is not the sole responsibility of the parent--or, worse yet, the child--to fix."

Sometimes, just monitoring a child's environment for a short period of time can be a helpful tool in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Keeping a journal for one week to record a child's diet, physical activity, sedentary time, sleep patterns, and how they hydrate can help a parent decide if any changes are needed. "The top cause of childhood obesity around the world is a shift to an 'obesogenic' environment," says Kent Sasse, a bariatric surgeon based in Reno, Nevada. "This means that our genes have not changed, the environment in which children are living today most certainly has."

Over the last 25 years, there have been numerous contributors to this new environment. Among them: For example:

-- Fewer children walk to school.

-- Greater amounts of homework lead to sedentary lifestyles.

-- Technology now entices children more than physical activity.

-- The availability of 24/7 T.V. shows for kids encourages increased sedentary time.

-- Parents work longer hours, causing kids to make unhealthy food choices in their absence.

-- Kids increasingly eat heavily processed foods.

It would be unfair to lay the blame on one factor, as different environmental factors affect each child in distinctive ways. "There's no one top cause," says Sarah Hampl, medical director of weight management at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo. "We cannot pinpoint or blame one single contributor, nor can one single intervention wipe this epidemic out. We have to work together with usual and unusual partners to solve it."

In the meantime, we know that small changes to a child's environment can help significantly.

Here are nine points to consider when helping children embark on a healthier lifestyle:

1. Baby steps: Rome was not built in a day, and losing weight doesn't occur overnight. If a child has long-term expectations right from the start, he or she won't be discouraged as easily.

2. Watch the liquid: Many children consume too much "liquid candy" throughout the day. Sugary drinks can easily make up 20 percent of a child's daily calories. According to the Mayo Clinic, cutting 100 calories a day from liquids can help one lose about half a pound after six months.

3. Increase physical activity: Yes, it's obvious, but often, it just doesn't happen. Squeezing in a 30-minute brisk walk each day is a giant leap in the right direction.

4. Offer healthy choices: Often, kids can grab whatever they want from the pantry. Try clearing the shelves of processed, fatty foods, and stock up on healthy choices. If they're hungry, they will eat it.

5. Plan family activities: Parents are children's primary role models. If a parent is sedentary or eats junk food all day, his or her children will likely follow suit. If mom and dad are active and follow a nutritious diet, children will likewise emulate their behavior.

6. Cut back on technology: It's wonderful--it's helped us with advancements in medicine, communication, and entertainment--but it's also contributing to a generation of couch potatoes.

7. Increase fruits and veggies: Make them part of every meal. Fruit is nature's candy, and eating vegetables can actually be fun. You can encourage a reluctant child by dipping veggies into low-fat chocolate pudding or yogurt. Slowly wean him or her off of this strategy over time. Veggies are important because they're rich in vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, antioxidants, and water content. They also help school performance, by improving memory, focus, and concentration.

8. Control portion sizes: Remember, children aren't mini-adults. Give them meal portions appropriate for their size.

9. Get enough sleep: Research shows that getting adequate sleep each night helps stabilize the hormones related to appetite so the body knows when it's full at meal time.

A little effort goes a long way. Change doesn't happen overnight--but with love, support, and guidance, the current generation of children will lead long, healthy lives. "Children who maintain a healthy weight not only have less risk for obesity-related problems, but are more likely to avoid obesity later in life," says Lloyd Werk, chief of general pediatrics at Nemours Children's Hospital in Orlando, Fla. Just as you put money in the bank to invest in your child's financial future, put a nutritious diet and physical activity into your child's life to invest in his or her health.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Len Saunders, M.A., is an award-winning and best-selling author. He is nationally recognized for his work in the fight against childhood obesity and educating families about the significance of a healthy lifestyle. Since 2007, Len has served as a spokesperson for the American Heart Association on the topic of childhood obesity. Len is the creator of dozens of national programs, such as Project ACES, PACES Day, and Exercise US--all which successfully teach children about the importance of fitness. His most recent book, "Keeping Kids Fit," is available through Amazon.