All summer they’ve enjoyed soda and candy at the theatre, and pizza and ice cream at the sleepover. Fast food, Kool-Aid, sno-cones, and unlimited trips to the pantry for chips and cookies are typical during the summer months.
And it doesn’t get much better once school starts.
For breakfast it’s usually sugary cereal, Pop-tarts, or as a treat on the weekend, doughnuts. School lunches leave a lot to be desired as far as good nutrition is concerned. So we pack a lunch for our children: sugary juice drinks, Lunchables, or maybe a sandwich and chips. We promise them if they eat their dinner they can have dessert. Or maybe we don’t have time to cook dinner, so we eat out. On the weekend it’s fast food again as we rush from one activity to another.
What are we doing to our children? Do we know? Do we care?
Nearly one-third of American children aged 4-19 eat fast food every day. Yes, every day! Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in our society with approximately 20 percent of children and adolescents now considered overweight or obese. The childhood obesity rate has more than tripled over the past three decades for children aged six to eleven. And who’s to blame? We are.
Do you think you don’t have to worry if your child isn’t overweight yet? Think again. According to an article published in the American Journal of Pathology, all children who consume the rich western diet show early stages of atherosclerosis (artery damage caused by fatty streaks) by the age of three.
Or perhaps you just think your child isn’t overweight. In a recent study by the American College of Gastroenterology less than 13 percent of the parents of children with an elevated body mass index (BMI) actually perceived their children as overweight.
It’ not just a national problem. It’s also a problem here on the northshore. When several local pediatricians were asked to weigh in on the main health issues they see every day, all of them listed obesity in the top three.
“There is too much food too readily available and not enough physical activity. Parents need to set the example,” said Dr. William L. Terral of the Children’s Medical Center in Covington. Terral said childhood obesity is one of the biggest changes he’s seen in his 33 years of practice on the northshore.
Dr. Tin Tin DeVoe, who has practiced in Mandeville for 27 years, concurs. She sees many overweight children, some of them morbidly obese. “Their nutrition is not right and many of them are couch potatoes,” said DeVoe.
So what’s the answer to the problem? “Education has to be the answer,” said Terral. “Education of parents is important, especially for well check visits,” said DeVoe. Part of Dr. DeVoe’s well visit for overweight children involves calculating BMI, drawing a lipid profile, checking thyroid function, and counsel to walk at least one hour every day.
With the current epidemic of obesity, you would think that weight management and nutrition would routinely be covered during your child’s visits to the pediatrician. Unfortunately, parents rarely visit a doctor to discuss a child’s weight problem and pediatricians often find it uncomfortable to bring up the topic, especially when the parents themselves are overweight, or if they’re afraid to hurt the child’s feelings. Most doctors are only able to spend 15 minutes or less with their patients. Not enough time to adequately counsel on nutrition and exercise.
“So what if my child is a little chubby?” you say. What’s the big deal? It can be a very big deal and one that will affect your child’s lifestyle and life span.
Childhood obesity is characterized by the emergence of serious weight-related problems. The incidence of Type 2 diabetes in adolescents, once a disease seen only in middle-age, has increased by a factor of more than 10 in the past two decades. Fatty liver associated with excessive weight occurs in about one in three obese children. Sixty percent of obese children aged five to ten have at least one cardiovascular disease risk factor such as elevated total cholesterol, triglycerides, or blood pressure, and 25 percent have two or more of these risk factors.
Increasingly studies are finding links between childhood obesity and other major health concerns. Overweight children are at a greater risk for gastrointestinal diseases, orthopedic problems, and sleep apnea, which can lead to problems with learning and memory. Recent studies have also revealed correlations between childhood obesity and both allergies and asthma.
Does Your Child Have Allergies?
· Runny or stuffy nose
· Watery eyes
· Frequent sinus or ear problems
· Chronic cough
· Coughing and/or wheezing spells
· Gastrointestinal upset (constipation or diarrhea)
· Eczema or dry, itchy skin
· Family history of allergies
And that doesn’t even take into account the psychological toll obesity is taking on our children. Overweight children are less able to participate with other children in playground activities or sports, tend to be more socially isolated, and have higher rates of anxiety and depression.
Northshore pediatricians cite both allergies and asthma as two of their top three health concerns. Dr. Sushma Gupta, a pediatric allergist/immunologist practicing in Covington since 1978 confirms that she has seen a trend of increasing incidence of allergic and reactive airway diseases in her practice. “Because of the heat and humidity here, we tend to have worse allergens. Pollination happens 10 months of the year and dust mites, mold, and mildew thrive in our environment,” said Gupta. “Allergies and asthma can interfere with learning, lifestyle, and is the frequent cause of school absences,” she said.
“It’s a world-wide phenomenon, but mostly in developed countries,” said Gupta. She said there are several theories as to the cause for this trend, one of which is lack of physical exercise and obesity. Gupta said overweight adults tend to have a higher incidence of reflux disease and asthma and that obese adults who have undergone gastric bypass surgery many times see their asthma symptoms disappear completely.
Recent studies seem to confirm this theory. A study released in May in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology showed that obese children and adolescents are at increased risk of having some kind of allergy, especially to a food. The rate of having a food allergy was 59 percent higher for obese children in this study.
The US National Health and Nutrition Study results suggest that the increase in childhood asthma may be at least partially explained by the rise in obesity. The researchers in this study found the fattest children were 77 percent more likely to have asthma symptoms. Additional research revealed a correlation between obesity and exercise-induced asthma in particular. Researchers discovered that the kids with higher levels of body fat and lower levels of activity were more likely to have narrowed airways and asthma-like symptoms after exercise.
Exercise-induced asthma is triggered by physical activity. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness or pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, poor athletic performance, and a long recovery time after exercise. “Many parents may not realize their children have exercise-induced asthma because it may present only as a cough after exercise,” said Gupta. She said children with exercise-induced asthma should not avoid activity or sports because the condition is treatable with an inhaler before exercise. She also cautions not to ignore the symptoms because it can be fatal.
Positive Things You Can Do:
· Know your child’s body mass index (BMI) and talk to your pediatrician about nutrition and weight control
· Lobby your local school board to provide truly healthy lunches and snacks and daily PE classes
· Ditch the soft drinks and juices and drink only water and low fat milk
· Keep plenty of fruits and vegetables on hand for snacks and throw out the processed junk food
· Say no to fast food
· Limit TV and video games
· Eat meals together as a family, not in front of the TV.
· Contact your legislators to lobby for bans on junk food advertising
· Don’t use food as a reward or punishment
· Involve your children in meal planning and grocery shopping in order to teach them to make good choices
· Find a physical activity the entire family can do together
What can you do if your child has allergies or asthma? Dr. Gupta has some advice:
· Allergen avoidance – dust often, have as little carpeting as possible, use allergy encasings for mattresses and pillows, keep home cool
· Keep kids active – inactivity only makes things worse
· Maintain ideal weight – control obesity and eat lots of fruit and vegetables
· Maintain stress-free environment – stress aggravates the condition
· Do not ignore symptoms
Although many factors may contribute to childhood obesity and associated diseases, the main culprits are the usual suspects: lack of exercise and the foods our kids eat. We as parents are the primary role models for our children and cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to their health.
Do we love them enough to do what we know is right and healthy, but maybe a little more difficult? Or will we continue to do what is easy and convenient? We must take responsibility and control. The price of not doing that is the health of our children. And that’s a high price to pay.