In a prior year, U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, proclaimed it “The Year of the Healthy Child”. Of course, there are numerous reasons that the U.S. is so focused on the health of the younger population; birth defects, drowning accidents, broken bones are among a few, but none is growing as fast as the alarmingly increasing number of obese children.
Childhood obesity is a major concern in our nation these days. The news highlights stories of obese four year olds, unable to play with other children their age without stopping from shear overexertion. The newspapers produce story after story of the decreased physical activity level of the nation’s children, of our youngster’s eating habits and of the dangerous health problems surfacing in young children, normally only seen in adults.
Obesity and Children
The crisis is getting a lot of attention; however, there is a still mountain of education that needs to be disseminated and solutions that need to be implemented before the epidemic will begin to abate. The first thing that must be defined in this situation is, “when is a child obese and when is he or she merely overweight?”
A national survey conducted in 1999, called the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance Study (YRBSS) sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that 16 percent of high school students were considered to be overweight while 10 percent fell into the obese category. In the study, overweight was defined as having a body mass index (BMI) greater than the 85th percentile but less than the 95th percentile, while an obese student was one with a BMI more than or equal to the 95th percentile.
Obesity is not an equal opportunity disease. In fact, the statistics found during the study were very unbalanced. More male students than female were found to be obese, more black than white students, and more black and Hispanic female students than white female students.
In a culture that reveres thinness and fitness; obese children live in a very alienated world. Almost 50% of teens polled were found to have tried at least one type of diet to lose the excess weight. The problem here is that most diets used were based more on starvation techniques than healthy, nutritional food choices and increased activity levels.
Solutions are hard to come by, as the reasons for being overweight and obese are complex. Obesity in our young children stems from unhealthy food choices, lack of physical exercise and increased sedentary activities. Many of these begin with a lack of education in nutrition and health both from the school system and from the parents, who in many cases are uneducated in nutrition and physical fitness as well. In fact, many schools, in looking for ways to make cost cuts in their budgets, have ceased physical education (PE) classes, while others, in an attempt to boost time in the classrooms and thus, hopefully, standardized test scores, have cut back on recess breaks for children.
In addition to the changes that the school system has made, our society seems to be more dangerous for children these days. Abductions, shootings, and rapes abound according to the media. Many parents, especially if they are living in a neighborhood with inflated crime rates, or who are at work when their children arrive home from school, understandably, don’t allow their young ones to leave the house unaccompanied by an adult. In many cases for these children, their activities are confined to the in-doors and usually include sedentary entertainment – TV, computer, video games, and of course, the favorite American past-time, snacking.
As the Surgeon General has noted, there must be change, and it must start now in order for the nation’s youth to develop into healthy, prospering adults. There are no clear cut answers, but getting involved in your community, volunteering to help out at school, and at after school programs, designing outdoor activities chaperoned by caring and mature adults, mentoring children with weight issues, these are all ways that each concerned citizen can help take a step in the right direction.