With the school year just beginning, Door County Medical Center is looking at different ways to help our kids stay healthy and happy. Because there is such a strong connection between physical and mental health, and because September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, Door County Medical Center is taking the opportunity to look at the risks associated with childhood obesity, its causes, and the steps that all families can take to help children avoid this serious health condition and live a healthy life.
During the past 40 years, obesity has gone from being a disease that afflicted the very few to a national epidemic. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one third (36.5%) of American adults suffer from obesity. Perhaps more troubling is the rate of obesity among our nation’s youth—roughly one in six (17%) children in the United States is obese. In our own state, the obesity rate is not much better. According to recent data, close to 31% of the adult population in Wisconsin is obese, with the current state childhood obesity rate hovering around 15%.
How is Obesity Defined?
Obesity means having too much body fat, which is different from being overweight, or weighing too much. Technically, obesity is defined by a ratio called body-mass-index, or BMI, which compares a person’s weight in kilograms to their height. In children BMI is calculated in percentiles: overweight is considered 85th percentile to less than 95th percentile, obese is 95th percentile and above.
There are numerous health risks associated with childhood obesity. Not only are obese children at higher risk to develop chronic physical health conditions and diseases, but they are also at higher risk of developing mental illness as well. Additionally, children with obesity are more likely to be obese as adults.
Physical health risks – Children with obesity are at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint disorders, heart disease and related conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Mental health risks – Children with obesity are more likely to suffer from social isolation, depression and low self-esteem. They are also more likely to be bullied than their normal weight peers.
The causes of childhood obesity are numerous, and more than one is often involved in the development of the disease. Factors include:
- Eating and physical behaviors – including a disproportionate amount of high sugar and high fat foods and snacks, too much “screen time,” and too much time being physically inactive.
- Genetics and metabolism.
- Family and home environment – including lack of regular sleep or regular sleep schedule, and lack of regular meal schedule.
- Community and social factors – this may include easy access to inexpensive, high calorie foods and sugary beverages, lack of access to affordable, healthier foods, and a lack of places to go in the community to get physically active.
- Income and food insecurity – because high-calorie, processed foods tend to be more inexpensive, children from low-income families are more likely to be obese. One inexpensive, local resource that can help fight food insecurity is the Boys & Girls Clubs of Door County, which provides healthy snacks five days a week and healthy dinners Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. For more information on the Boys & Girls Clubs of Door County’s Food Program, please see our recent blog on the program, visit their website: http://bgcdoorcounty.org/ or call: (920) 818 – 1046.
For more information on the many causes and factors that result in childhood obesity, visit the CDC’s website by clicking here.
The good news is that childhood obesity can be combated, even prevented. “The goal in kids is often not to lose weight, but to stop weight gain and allow them to grow into their weight,” says Dr. Amy Fogarty, pediatrician at DCMC. “In addition,” she says, “combating and preventing obesity is not only about weight, but also about creating healthy habits—both eating and fitness habits—that kids will carry into adulthood.”
Eat right, eat less
Eating right is important to maintaining a healthy weight, but what do we mean when we say “eating right?” Eating right means increasing the number of “green foods” that we keep and serve in the house, while reducing the availability of sugary, high-fat and processed foods.
- Keep fruits and vegetables “out,” within reach, and available as snacks. Dr. Fogarty suggests parents “cut up fruit and veggies—have them in fridge ready to serve. Kids can grab them for a quick snack, or serve them as an ‘appetizer’ while you cook dinner.”
- Serve more fruits, vegetables and whole-grains with each meal—vegetables should account for at least 30%, and fruits 20%, of any given meal, while whole-grains should account for an additional 30% (that’s 80% of the plate!)
- Download the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Go, Slow, and Whoa foods chart. “Post it on your refrigerator at home or take it with you to the store when you shop.” Use it to help learn which foods lead to a healthier life. Additionally, Dr. Fogarty points out that “parents can even sort snacks in the fridge and pantry into green go foods, yellow slow foods and red whoa foods to help kids learn which foods provide the healthiest choices.”
Eating less means smaller portions at home. In the past 20 years, the amount of food that restaurants serve has nearly doubled, and according to the NIH, this “has affected the way we look at and serve food at home, too.” Learn more about the difference between a serving and a portion and about the phenomenon the NIH refers to as “portion distortion,” by clicking here.
When we eat more food—more calories—than our bodies can use in a day, our bodies store the excess—in other words, we gain weight. When you get active, you spend the excess, and maintain a proper energy balance. Whether it’s through playing a game of basketball, going for a family hike, or riding a bike to school, by being active both children and adults can maintain a healthy weight. To learn more about “energy balance,” visit the NIH website by clicking here.
Reduce screen time
Screen time means television screens, computer monitors, video games and handheld devices like smart-phones and tablets, and in the 21st Century, reducing screen time can be difficult. Nevertheless, increased screen time means reduced physical activity. The common view among health experts is that “screen time at home should be limited to two hours or less a day. The time we spend in front of the screen, unless it’s work- or homework-related, could be better spent being more physically active.”
There is no single solution to confronting and combating childhood obesity, but as Dr. Fogarty points out, “often, by combining these different approaches, you can get more ‘bang for your buck.’” For a more in depth look at these different strategies please visit the CDC website on Strategies to Prevent & Manage Obesity by clicking here, or the NIH website on Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition (We Can) by clicking here. For great ways to create healthy and fun school lunches for your little ones please click here.