“Parents don’t have a good indication of what being ‘overweight’ really is. They are desensitized because of the percentage of children they see who are overweight. You’re seeing all these overweight kids and you think that’s the norm,” said Marlow, who is a pediatrician at Mountain States Medical Group Pediatrics. Marlow has a special interest in treating pediatric obesity along with nutritional counseling.
Today, a third of U.S. children and teens are obese or overweight, including one in eight preschoolers.
Numbers like these indicate childhood obesity is a serious health concern, Marlow says.
Earlier this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of a study in which nearly 12 million preschoolers from 40 states plus Washington D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico had their body mass index (BMI) measured. Most of these children came from low-income families who received assistance from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a federal program that gives grants to state-level health and nutrition aid projects.
The majority — 21 states — showed no significant changes in their current obesity rates, while 19 states had a slight decline, and three states registered an increase. Tennessee was one of the states where rates increased.
Marlow says even though some states reported a decline in rates, it was only slight and is no cause to think progress is really being made to combat what is truly an epidemic.
During well checks, Marlow says pediatricians check every child’s body mass index. If this number, which is based on height and weight, is above the 85th percentile, the child may face some serious health issues either now or in the future. “Kids that are in that range have a higher rate of hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and gall bladder disease,” she said.
Jennifer Walker, a registered dietitian with Holston Medical Group’s Healthy U, says in the past 30 years childhood obesity rates have tripled, and she agrees these children are headed down a very dangerous path.
“Childhood obesity leads to childhood morbidity and long-term morbidity. We’re looking at diabetes, hypertension, fatty liver, emotions issues — overall a shortened life span for kids who are obese at a young age,” Walker said. “Kids as young as 10 are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and hypertension. It’s heartbreaking.”
Because of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and lack of physical inactivity, some medical experts predict this may be the first generation that will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
A number of factors have contributed to the dramatic increase in childhood obesity in the past three decades in our country, Walker says.
“We eat larger meals. There’s a huge portion problem. We have more energy-dense foods (such as snack foods and candy). People eat out so much more than they did 30 years ago. They don’t cook at home anymore. We use more convenience products. And absolutely one of the biggest correlations is the television, the computers and the video games. So many more kids are inside versus outside playing. They’re not walking to school anymore. There’s just less time for kids to play at home and there’s also less physical activity in our schools,” she said.
With some lifestyle changes, improvements can be made to these children’s health. But parents must be on board.
“Parents are responsible for bringing in the groceries, for taking their kids to places where they can be physically active, limiting screen time. It has to be a family approach. The parents have to be invested in it for it to be successful,” Marlow said. “I do try to find out what barriers there are, what obstacles there are to their kids being healthy. I try to stress and focus on the kids being healthy. I use words like ‘strong’ and ‘fit.’ I tell parents we are the role models. Kids look to us for guidance. They learn from us and if we provide that healthy environment and we do things like parking at that first spot we come to and walking, taking the stairs, buying the fruits and vegetables, eating at home and drinking water, our kids will follow that.”
Walker also points out families have to admit there actually is an issue at hand.
“A lot of families don’t even believe they have a problem. They just feel like their whole family is overweight or they’re just big-boned. Their perception is that this is all just normal,” she said.
Both health experts recommend following the “5-2-1-0 initiative”: 5 servings of fruits and vegetables; 2 hours or less of screen time a day; 1 hour of physical activity and 0 soft drinks or sugar-sweetened drinks.
“It’s fairly memorable, I hope,” said Marlow. “And actually the kids are a lot more educated than their parents are on the nutritional and physical activity parts of all this from initiatives the schools have put in place.”