The facts regarding childhood obesity are stunning. According to the CDC:
• Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
• The percentage of children aged 6-11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12-19 years who were obese increased from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period.
• Overweight and obesity are the result of “caloric imbalance” – too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed – and are affected by various genetic, behavioral an environmental factors.
“Certainly childhood obesity has become a problem over the years. It can have long-term ramifications, including the early development of more ‘adult’ diseases,” says Jeff Hopkins, M.D., of Northside Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. “In our practice, we’re seeing more and more children with adult onset diabetes, elevated cholesterol levels, sleep apnea and joint issues such as arthritis.”
Overweight and obese children are often caught up in a vicious cycle of lack of exercise and unhealthy eating that Hopkins calls a “snowball effect.”
“These kids need to move around more, but because of their size, are having more difficulty moving around,” he explains. “In fact, families, in general, are more sedentary than ever before. They eat out more frequently than they should because fast food is relatively inexpensive. Healthy foods are more expensive – healthy meals require more money, more effort to prepare … more everything.”
However, there is some positive progress toward helping children and families affected by obesity. Hopkins says that more parents are becoming aware of the problem and are willing to make lifestyle changes for the sake of their children and the whole family.
Programs such as Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s “Strong 4 Life” teach physicians and other healthcare providers how to communicate with parents and educate them about how to adopt a healthy lifestyle, such as incorporating several servings of fresh fruit and vegetables into daily meals and snacks or limiting their children’s time in front of the television or playing video games.
“There is some good news, and we’re actually seeing some improvement on the childhood obesity front,” says Hopkins. “Parents are realizing that this is a real problem and the child it affects is theirs, not just some child down the street. They want to work with their pediatrician to come up with a healthy plan that helps the whole family succeed.”