Childhood obesity: Our generation’s epidemic

May 2010 Posted in Your Health

By Kristine Thomas

Healthy Tips

Increase the fruits and vegetables you eat.
Increase physical activity.
Decrease sweetened beverages such as
soda pop, energy drinks and juice.
Decrease the number of high-calorie foods.
It’s OK to have ice cream, French fries or a
candy bar – just not every day.

Allow children to watch television
while they are eating.
Turn the TV off and eat dinner as a family.
Monitor how much time your child
spends watching TV,
playing video games or using the computer.
Use food as a reward or a bribe.

Silverton Hospital Network’s Health
Management can be reached at

Childhood obesity is “our generation’s Black Plague,” Sarah Fronza said, not once but twice to emphasize the severity.

The director of chronic disease prevention and management for the Silverton Hospital Network, Fronza is passionate about educating people on preventing childhood obesity.

“Our nation has never dealt with an epidemic like childhood obesity. Nearly one-third of children are overweight or obese,” Fronza said. “It’s going to take everyone working together from physicians to community leaders to families and schools to end this epidemic.”

According the Mayo Clinic, childhood obesity is a “serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. It occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age and height.”

Fronza said a physician would look at a child’s weight and calculate his body mass index, or BMI. The BMI indicates if a child is overweight for his age and height. For example, when a child is in the 80th percentile it means compared with children of the same sex and age, 80 percent have a lower BMI. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have established guidelines to help identify overweight and obese children: BMI for age between 85th and 94th percentile – overweight. BMI for age 95 percentile or above – obese.

Parents concerned about their child’s weight should visit their child’s doctor, who will examine the child’s history of growth and development, the family’s weight-for-height history and where the child lands on the growth charts.

Most of the time childhood obesity is caused by kids eating too much, especially high-calorie, low-nutritional foods and exercising too little. There also are some genetic and hormonal contributors to childhood obesity. Recent research indicates that addressing overweight and childhood obesity during childhood is too late. Instead, efforts should be focused on encouraging healthy weight gain during pregnancy, tobacco cessation for pregnant women and increasing breastfeeding duration.

Childhood obesity should be addressed because it could lead to complications for the child’s physical, social and emotional well being. Physical complications include sleep disorders, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. In addition, the child could experience social or emotional complications such as low self-esteem and being bullied, behavior or learning problems or depression.

Fronza said there is no “silver bullet” to end childhood obesity. Instead, it starts with examining one’s lifestyle – how we eat and what we do.

One-third of American children eat fast food every day and physical activity has decreased in recent years – both are factors leading to childhood obesity, she said.

“We need to change the way we view food,” Fronza said. “I think many people’s view on food is passive. It’s something given to them at a fast food restaurant or opening a box. We need to make something that is more active and we participate in making it. … We now have a surplus of high-calorie, high fat foods, but we haven’t compensated by increasing our energy expenditure. Instead, we have decreased our physical activity.”

Since parents are responsible for buying, cooking and deciding where food is eaten, they can make small changes that will make a huge difference in their children’s health.

Open your cupboard or refrigerator – what in it is processed foods compared to whole foods? Regularly fast foods, prepared meals, baked goods, candy and soft drinks can lead to gaining weight because they are high in sugar, fat and calories.

When she is grocery shopping, Fronza said people often look in her cart. She buys lots of fruits and vegetables, low-fat products and healthy snacks. She’s not saying foods such as ice cream and chocolate shouldn’t be eaten but they should be enjoyed in moderation.

The time children spend watching television, playing video games or using the computer also factors into childhood obesity, she said. It’s common sense – lethargic lifestyle plus high calorie foods equals weight gain.

“We need to shift our mind sets and start thinking about what we are putting in our body,” she said.

Children mirror adults’ eating behavior. If a child sees a mother grabbing a cookie because she had a rough day at the office, the child will learn food is a way to comfort emotions and do the same.

Fathers, Fronza said, can contribute to what their child thinks about vegetables. “My husband, Jon, is a Midwestern boy who had limited exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “He really took to heart what he did, his children would do. It truly shocks his mother when now, he eats mushrooms, cauliflower and asparagus and a variety of other delicious and nutritious choices.”

Fronza worked on the Wellness Policy, implemented in 2006 for the Silver Falls School District, with Robert Frost Principal Beth Davisson. The policy’s major components include nutrition education, physical activity, nutrition guidelines and food services operation.

While the district has much work to do, there have been accomplishments, Davisson said. Soda pop is no longer available in vending machines and there is a decrease in candy and non-nutritious food being used as incentives, although parents often bring cupcakes for birthday treats.

Davisson said the Food Service Program continues to make improvements in what it serves in the school’s cafeterias including eliminating deep fat frying, offering fat-free or 1 percent milk, providing fewer desserts and smaller cookies and using whole wheat crust in the pizza.

Although students are weighed and measured each year, Davisson said the information is confidential and statistics are not compiled to do height/weight calculations to determine obesity.

“As an informal observer, it seems that there is a growing epidemic of students who are facing this challenge,” Davisson said.

She worries about the students she sees who are overweight at such a young age, because she knows how difficult it is to maintain a healthy weight as they grow older.

“There seems to be a cycle of eating too much, being inactive, getting overweight, not feeling like exercising, and consequently, gaining more weight,” she said. “My perception is that too many students are not active enough and they talk about eating fast food/junk food regularly. It is very sad.”

While Davisson commends her school’s PE program, she said students are limited to two 30-minute periods a week, “which is not optimum.”“The battle against childhood obesity comes down to what you eat, how much you eat and what you to do to stay active.
“We know what is causing childhood obesity,” Fronza said. “It’s going to require effort from families, health care providers, community members and a change in our current approach to health to stop it.”

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