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Childhood Obesity: An Epidemic
Part I: The Crisis

Nancy Stephan
Staff Writer

   Childhood obesity continues to increase in this country and around the world with the number of overweight children doubling since the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.   

   National Health and Nutrition Examination Studies, the nation’s most comprehensive look at our health and nutrition, reported the rates tripled since the Surgeon General’s report. NHANES found not only are more American youngsters overweight today, but more severely overweight than ever before.  Now we notice two or three large students in a class of 20 compared to a few decades ago when a class that size would have only one.

   As percentages of overweight children continue to rise, so do the risks of adults susceptible to weight-related health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. If we use current rates of overweight adults to project the results for our typical class of 20, six students will become obese and six will become overweight by the time they reach adulthood. 

   The December 2004 statistics released by the American Heart Association indicated nearly 4 million children, ages 6-11 and 5.3 million adolescents, ages 12-19 proved overweight or obese in 2002. In addition, more than 10 percent of preschool children between the ages of two and five were overweight in 2002. This projects an increase from 7 percent in 1994. 

   Children of lower income families possess a greater chance of becoming overweight in the United States. The NHANES found the rates higher for minority populations in 15 percent of all teenagers, and more importantly, a higher incidence of overweight in preschoolers from low-income families. 

   According to researchers at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., being overweight as a child can lead to obesity as well. Studies indicated that men 20 pounds or more overweight as teenagers, became two times more likely to develop heart disease or die by age 70. The same study showed women, who had been overweight as teens, doubled their risk of arthritis and found it eight times more difficult to walk a quarter of a mile.  

   At one time people thought obesity resulted from overeating or simply consuming too many calories. Today’s experts tend to place the blame on eating foods too high in fat and sugars and too low in protein and fiber. The answer lies in overeating rich foods combined with inactivity and sedentary living. The term “couch potato” describes many of our adolescents and younger children quite adequately. However, scientists admit obesity remains a complex condition that confuses them at every turn.   

   The World Health Organization describes the most vulnerable times in life for the development of obesity as follows: 

ˇ        Prenatal – nutrition during fetal life may affect development of size, shape, body composition and the way the body handles nutrients. 

ˇ        Adiposity rebound – early pre-school years are a time of lower body fat, followed by a rapid rebound in fat. 

ˇ        Adolescence – body changes during puberty promote increased fat deposition.  This may also be a time of increasing inactivity and irregular eating. 

ˇ        Early adulthood – there may be marked reduction in physical activity and often weight gain. 

ˇ        Pregnancy – weight gain for mothers averages about one pound with each child, but with wide variation.  The more pregnancies, the higher the risk of big weight gains. 

ˇ        Menopause – typically women experience a metabolic slowdown along with possible reduced activity that results in weight gain at mid-life. 

   Five of these six periods affect children and teens. Childhood presents itself as a vulnerable time. 

   The American Heart Association reported in 2004 it expects the epidemic to worsen unless society makes some changes. Prevention or treatment of overweight children may help reduce the risk of heart disease and other serious illnesses. The situation reflects the changes in society and behavioral patterns during recent decades. 

   A worldwide nutrition transition combined with an increase in physical activity offers two paths leading to a reduction of the disease. In addition to cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke as well as obesity and overweight pose a major risk factor for serious diet-related diseases, which include diabetes. 

   The hallmark for Type 2 diabetes in children remains the obesity factor. The likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes rises steadily with increasing fat intake. The disease previously associated with older adults for most of the 20th century, now affects obese children prior to adolescence. The American Diabetes Association recommends a healthy eating pattern and a change in sedimentary lifestyle of the child, which would increase exercise and reduce calorie intake. 

   Overweight and obesity lead to negative effects on blood pressure, cholesterol and insulin resistance. More debilitating problems include respiratory difficulties, chronic muscular problems, skin problems and infertility. 

   The primary prevention of childhood obesity involves awareness and public health intervention, which implements school and community based programs. These programs encourage improvement in nutrition and physical activity habits of children and adolescents in this country and around the world.

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ŠThe Voice 2006
01/13/2008 03:27:14 PM — http://www.uamont.edu/Organizations/TheVoice/4_10/obesity1.htm