McFarland Clinic

Childhood Obesity: Fighting Rising Rates with Lifestyle Changes

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July 31, 2012

Kids sitting in a row at a lunch table with one holding an apple.In the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States. In Iowa alone, the percent of obese people has risen to nearly 30 percent. Perhaps more alarming is that since 1988, obesity rates among children and adolescents have nearly tripled.

“Body mass index (BMI) is the accepted standard measure of overweight and obesity for children older than two years old,” says McFarland Clinic pediatrician Therese Halbur, MD. “BMI provides a guideline for weight in relation to height; it is measured weight (kg) divided by height (cm).”

Because kids grow in weight and height the actual number for BMI varies with age and gender. For children, overweight is a BMI between 85-95 percentile and obesity is at or above 95 percentile for children of the same age.

One of the nagging issues regarding childhood obesity is the cause.

“Almost all obesity in children is strongly influenced by environmental factors caused by either a sedentary lifestyle or calorie intake greater than one needs,” says Dr. Halbur.

The specific contributions are subject to considerable research and include:

  • Sugar containing beverages
  • Larger portion sizes
  • Fast food service
  • Decreased family presence at meals
  • Shortened sleep duration
  • Decreased physical activity

“TV is one of the best established environmental influences on the development of obesity. The amount of time spent watching TV is directly proportional to the prevalence of obesity,” says Dr. Halbur. “Electronic games are similar to TV.”

Less than one percent of children and adolescents with obesity are attributed to endocrine factors. Having an obese parent increases the risk by two-three fold. The likelihood of persistence into adulthood seems to be related to age, parent obesity and severity of obesity. Overweight girls are more likely to become overweight or obese as adults.

Maintaining a healthy weight is important in disease prevention.  Type 2 diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, liver problems and knee or back pain are all common among obese children and adolescents.

“Elevated lipids and fats can increase the risk of adult coronary artery disease. The changes can be found in arteries as young as age two,” says Dr. Halbur.

Your child’s doctor or nurse will tell you if your child is overweight. Tests may be done to help determine if there are any conditions that could be causing weight gain or health problems from being overweight.

Parents can help keep children at a healthy weight by choosing healthy foods and encouraging them to be active. Avoid bringing unhealthy food into your home. Set an example by eating healthy foods. Get help if being overweight is causing your child to be sad, worried or have a hard time in school.

“To make lifestyle changes think of the numbers 5-2-1-0. Each of these stand for a goal you try to reach every day,” says Dr. Halbur.

Working with your child’s doctor or nurse and seeing them for regular check-ups helps them to follow their BMI over time. Often they can refer you to a dietician that can help with healthy foods and meal plans.

  • 5 – have your child eat 5 servings of fruits or vegetables each day. Fruit juice does not count toward the goal. A serving is usually 1 whole fruit or ½ cup of vegetables.
  • 2 – limit your child’s screen time to 2 hours or less a day.
  • 1 – have your child do physical activity for 1 hour or more each day.
  • 0 – your child should have 0 sugary drinks each day.

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