The other day I was at a high school varsity basketball game. A pep squad of 10 girls dancing to some upbeat music provided the halftime entertainment.
They were all talented dancers and their routine was entertaining, but I noticed something else about this group of girls: five of the 10 were definitely overweight and three of those five were obese. I was really surprised. These girls are active and athletic.
It was a graphic reminder of how our kids are steadily becoming chubbier and chubbier right before our eyes.
The expanding girth of our children has been slow but consistent over the past several years-so slow that some parents may not even notice-but take a look around the next time you're dropping your kids off at school or shopping at the mall. Kids may not look obese, but notice how their tummies hang over their waistbands. This little bit of pudge is a fairly new phenomenon. Twenty years ago, preteens and teens were lean. Body fat was typically low. Children who were overweight were unusual. But today, we barely take a second look at a 12-year-old with love handles.
This is a problem and it isn't because of appearance. It's
because of health.
Sixteen to 33 percent of children today are overweight or obese. Teens whose BMI (body mass index, the gold standard for measuring obesity) is in the overweight range at age 13 are very likely to struggle with weight in adulthood. In fact, eight out of 10 overweight teens will be obese at age 25.
Problems with weight
Many health problems are associated with obesity in adulthood and those same issues can affect children, too. In my practice, I have seen several children with extreme obesity, some who weigh 350-400 pounds, and all of them have suffered adult-type health challenges as a result. They have high blood pressure and diabetes, and the bones in their legs bend under their extreme weight so that surgery is required to straighten them back out.
I've seen a 105-pound 4-year-old with sleep apnea who developed
a heart problem as a result. I've seen kids who have a hard time
walking around the block and kids whose self-esteem suffers because
of their obesity.
It's tragic. And what's really sad is that they all want to lose weight, but when they consider what it would take to lose more than 100 pounds, they just get discouraged. It seems impossible. It's not impossible, but it is very, very difficult.
Fortunately, most kids aren't as overweight as the patients I see, but they do have enough excess weight to cause health problems now or put them at high risk in the future.
Consider this: The most motivated adults have a hard time losing weight even though they control what food comes into their house or whether they eat fast food or exercise regularly. Kids' diets and activity are mostly controlled by their parents, their school and the availability of free or organized play available in their neighborhood. Most don't know about reading labels or calorie counting, and there aren't many opportunities for them to learn these things.
It's really up to parents and that's not meant as an accusation or a guilt trip. Life moves fast these days and high-calorie, low-nutrition convenience foods can feel like the only option. Parents are being asked to figure out how to squeeze in healthy meals between after-school activities, day care pickup, homework and a healthy bedtime.
What you can do
Here are some tips to help your children achieve and maintain a healthy weight:
One of the most encouraging things about helping kids achieve a healthy weight is that they are still growing and often don't need to lose, but rather maintain the weight they are as they "grow into it."
The childhood obesity epidemic is going to be slowed down one family at a time. We are our children's best role models and as we help our children develop healthier habits, we may even find ourselves getting healthier. That's what I call a great side effect.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children's Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
See more of Dr. Thornton's stories here.