The first National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month was proclaimed in September 2010 and endorsed again by President Obama this year. Public Health experts describe the childhood obesity epidemic as one of the greatest health and economic challenges of the 21st century. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has called for personal responsibility. Public health officials are asking schools to intensify their efforts to promote increased levels of exercise and healthy eating habits.
Dr Oz aired a show asking: “Is it child abuse to have an overweight kid?” Dr Oz reminds us that over weight children become over weight adults with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Over weight children do not perform as well as normal weight children in school. Another pediatric expert, Dr. David Ludwig, suggests taking away extremely obese children from their parent’s home.
I began asking my friends and neighbors: who is to blame for children getting fat? The typical answer was “Their parents!” Really? As a registered nurse, fitness instructor and mom, I am forever at the podium or gym promoting exercise and healthy eating. However, I still have to contend with the requests of “please mommy can I have it?” Yesterday I wanted to scream when I saw a television ad claiming that three cookies for breakfast contained as much fiber as a bowel of oatmeal.” Are you kidding me? Cookies for breakfast? How can good old-fashioned oatmeal compete with that? I agree that it is my responsibility to keep my child healthy. I also find I am fighting an uphill battle when computers games, fast food, and chunks of sugar called cereal are calling my child’s name.
More than 23 million children and teenagers in this country are considered over weight or obese. Three million receive prescription medication for high cholesterol. The obesity rate for children has alarmingly tripled since 1980. The Federal government and my school district have taken steps to help solve this public health problem. First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative focuses on low fat recipes for eating, and has even recruited pop star Beyonce to offer up dance moves to keep adults and children moving.
Many doctors express frustration regarding the care of overweight children. They listen to parents that have to beg, bargain, and hide food from children that are over eating. Pediatricians have taken a further stance against companies peddling foods high in fat, sugar, and empty calories. The Academyof Pediatricsrecently called on congress to act in the interest of protecting our children from such advertisements. Doctors are concerned that TV ads condition children to prefer and request high fat and high sugar foods. They also suggest that poor snacking habits while watching television may contribute to weight gain. Another advocacy group (www.ewg.org) reports food giants such as Pepsi and Kraft are lobbying the government to remove health and nutrition guidelines for responsible advertising. In 2006, 1.6 billion dollars in ads was spent targeting junk food to our children.
Here are some things we all can do to assure that our children stay healthy:
Move your body. Most health organizations recommend 60 minutes of physical activity for children and adults EVERY day! The American Heart Association has softened their stance and asks for a mere 30 minutes a day. This time can be split up during the day so children may play at recess, and then take a walk with parents after school or dinner. Good news! Researchers found that exercise games such as Dance, Dance Revolution helped kids burn more calories than walking on a treadmill. My family loves dancing with Michael Jackson on the Wii. Many parents drive their kids to an athletic event, sit there, and watch them. It would be nice to see more programs where families exercise together. I was at the park the other day and only counted 12 children on the playground. Upper Merionis so fortunate to have the gift of a strong Parks and Recreation Department. We have ball fields and parks that other cities would regard with envy. In a society scheduled with organized classes and video games, we forget the value of playing tag and hanging from the monkey bars.
Change school policy
Studies show that recess is crucial to healthy childhood development. Our school lunch period only provides 40 minutes to eat and play. The kids tell me that they are barely finished eating, when the bell rings to end recess. My daughter has gym class once a week even though the exercise recommendation is for at least 30 minutes a day. Fit kids equal smarter kids. Research has also shown that school based fitness programs improve test scores and academic performance.
Portion Control (see http://www.choosemyplate.gov/ ), a program sponsored by the government, focuses on enjoying our food but simply eating less of it. They provide an easy guideline that divides your plate into sections. Half of your plate should be filled with brightly colored fruits and vegetables and the remaining portion is for lean protein and whole grains. We are over feeding our kids. I know this is a complex subject since there are still children in our country living at the level of poverty. However, children from lower income families are the most likely to be obese. Our abundant society has provided access to restaurants and stores serving up super sized portions of food loaded with fat, sugar, and salt.
This brings me to the subject of special occasions. When I was a kid, we enjoyed a slice of cake at birthday parties. Halloween candy usually lasted a few months since it was our responsibility to save our pennies, walk to the corner, and buy more. Today there is a party for every reason and season. At Birthday parties we give kids cake, pizza, AND a bag of candy. At a sporting event, I watched a young child fill her plate with orange cheese puffs, a large piece of cake covered with sugary frosting, and potato chips. Did I mention that there were celery and carrots at the party but I did not see one child with veggies on their plate.
It takes a village to raise a child. Educating young people to become and stay healthy will foster citizens that will be the best and brightest leaders of society.