Many people are uncomfortable talking about childhood obesity, especially when it comes to their own children. However, ignoring it, or thinking a child will slim down as he or she grows taller, can make things worse.
September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. As a physician and medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, I know no child wants to be overweight. So what can you do as a parent, grandparent or other influencer to ensure the kids you care about develop health habits that last a lifetime?
Overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, preschool-aged children who are overweight or obese are five times more likely than normal-weight children to be overweight or obese as adults. Worse, the health risks associated with obesity as a child also carry into adulthood.
For example, obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular diseases such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure as well as prediabetes, a risk factor for development of diabetes later in life. Children and adolescents who are obese also are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as poor self-esteem.
It’s no secret the number of children carrying excess weight has increased substantially. The CDC reports that obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In fact, the percentage of adolescents age 12 to19 who were obese increased from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent between 1980 and 2012.
In Georgia, the numbers are even worse. Thirty-five percent of children in our state ages 10 to 17 are overweight or obese — almost 400,000 Georgia kids, compared to 30 percent nationally.
Researchers point to a number of factors that are driving this epidemic in young people, not least of which is an overall decrease in physical activity. Currently, only about a quarter of adolescents ages 12 to 15 are getting the recommended one hour a day of physical activity.
Instead, the CDC reports, children ages 8 to 18 spend up to 7½ hours a day viewing entertainment media. Time that kids used to spend in leisure-time play that involved physical activity is now spent in sedentary pursuits such as video games, browsing the Internet and watching TV. The unhealthy effects of inactivity are compounded when kids snack on high-fat, high-sugar processed foods and soft drinks.
In Georgia, Blue Cross Blue Shield has been a proud supporter of HealthMPowers, a nonprofit, school-based program to promote healthy eating and physical activity using evidence-based guidelines established by the CDC. Since 2003, HealthMPowers has served more than 264 schools, 41 school districts and 202,114 Georgia students. Students in participating schools reported improved health behaviors by being more active, eating more fruit and spending less time in front of the TV and computer.
What’s important to remember is that health habits — good and bad — start young, so parents can have a lifelong impact on their children’s health. Just as an overweight child is more likely to become an overweight adult, children who are physically active and eat well are more likely to continue those healthy habits into adulthood.
If your child is overweight, there are many things you can do to help him or her make positive changes:
First, be sure to talk to your child’s pediatrician, who can refer you to resources for meal planning, nutritional guidance and physical activity.
Children are more likely to succeed in changing their behavior when the whole family participates, so plan family walks or bike rides.
Set limits on how much time your child spends playing video and computer games.
Dr. Mark Kishel is the medical Director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia.