Over the span of one generation, childhood obesity rates have tripled, affecting 17 percent of all children and adolescents across the nation, according to figures posted by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because of the health risk involved – both immediate and future risks – it is imperative to start early when educating children about how to live more healthily, said Cherokee County Public Health executive director Chris Taylor.
“Obesity is now known as one of the leading causes of chronic disease, including diabetes, joint damage and subsequent pain, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary related disease, sleep disorders and a whole other list of consequences,” he said.
Additionally, the CDC website points out, “obese children and adolescents have a greater risk of social and psychological problems, such as discrimination and poor self-esteem, which can continue into adulthood.”
This, Taylor agreed, has a wide range of repercussions “that includes bullying and the development or exacerbation of social disorders, such as the display of angry emotional outbursts, anxiety, social avoidance, depression and the feeling of never belonging to a group.
“This last one is a very important issue to children especially, and obesity can have a huge negative impact,” he said.
And, “if children are overweight, obesity in adulthood is likely to be more severe” in their adulthood, the CDC discovered.
Body Mass Index (BMI) is calculated using an individual's height and weight: the CDC defines a person with a BMI of 30.0 or greater as obese, while someone with BMI between 25.0 to 29.9 is considered overweight.
In children and adolescents, obesity is when a youth is at or above the 95th percentile for BMI by age and sex, according to the CDC; an overweight youth is at or above the 85th percentile but below the 95th percentile.
In Texas, 32.2 percent of Texas adults and 15.6 percent of Texas youth were obese, doubling for adults since 1980 and tripling for children since then, the CDC found.
While children often lose weight as they enter into adulthood, they may put that weight back on for a number of different reasons, Taylor pointed out.
“For most of us, genetics will determine what our bodies do with excess weight gain, but what we have control over is how much weight we gain and keep. For children, it is the healthy behaviors that they must practice in order for them to be able to exercise this necessary control later in life,” he said. “If you think it's okay to eat junk food every day, because you did as a kid, chances are you are going to experience some hefty health issues – in other words, it isn't just the short term damage done by poor diet and exercise while they are children, but arguably more important, is the fact they grow up believing they should eat the same way throughout life.”
The key to fighting obesity is to rethink lifestyle patterns of eating, exercise and education, beginning at home.
“Mom and dad have to model the behaviors they want to see their children imitate,” Taylor said, pointing out that “kids learn quickly that if mom and dad say it, but don't do it, then it must not be that important in the first place.”
Suggested ideas include:
• Implement the “Fooducate” application from the iTunes store to scan food while grocery shopping and learn how well it rates as part of a meal plan.
• Learn what kinds of meals are offered on your child's school lunch menu, and build healthy meal plans around them.
• Set annual visits with your child's healthcare provider. “This helps parents keep track of weight gain and other clinical indicators of proper growth and nutrition, even if they have not been sick recently,” Taylor said.
• Incorporate exercise into daily family activity, like walking, hiking, outdoor play, bike-riding, etc. “You don't need a gym” for a family to stay fit, Taylor said.
• Give kids an opportunity to help prepare meals – “Sometimes, letting them make the salad, or choose the vegetable side dish is all it takes to get them involved,” he said.
Another good rule of thumb? Think 5210.
“5210 is a great thing for families to remember: 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, 2 hours of physical activity, 1 hour of screen time and 0 sugary drinks/sodas, every day – that one set of changes has the potential to reverse the obesity trend,” he explained.
Also, help provide healthier food alternatives not only at home but at group functions.
“At (gatherings), instead of offering donuts and juice to visitors, include fresh fruits like grapes, bananas and apples,” Taylor suggested.
And don't give up if your child doesn't immediately like the healthier fare – “it takes more than a handful of attempts at trying new foods, before the tastebuds 'accept' the new food,” he said.
Good resources for helping families come up with healthier lifestyle plan that can help fight obesity vary.
“Do your homework, using resources like your pediatrician's office or your local public health agency, even teachers or the AgriLife extension agent for your county,” he said. “Anyone whose sole purpose is to help guide families in the right direction.”
Websites such as “MyPlate” also can be a handy resource in preparing meals, said Cherokee County Extension Agent Wendi Green, who fields the Family & Consumer Sciences division of the local office.
In fact, her page on the “cherokee.agri-life.org” website features links for recipes and programs offered by her office.