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Obesity Among Children

by Alvin Poussaint, M.D.

Obesity Epidemic

It's not "cool" to be fat, but that has not prevented an obesity epidemic from occurring among America's youth. Childhood obesity increased from 5 percent in 1964 to about 13 percent in 1994. Today, it is about 20 percent – and rising.

Excessive time spent watching television, using the computer, and playing video games is partly to blame for this escalating rate. Children, on average, spend up to five to six hours a day involved in these sedentary activities. Perhaps it wouldn't matter if they were sufficiently active at other times, but most of them aren't.

To make matters worse, children are bombarded with well-crafted TV ads from fast-food chains and other purveyors of high-fat, high-sugar meals and snacks. A recent study reported that two-to-six-year-olds who watch television are more likely to choose food products advertised on TV than children who do not watch such commercials. These highly effective advertising campaigns, combined with a physically inactive lifestyle, have produced a generation of kids who are at high risk for obesity-associated medical conditions.

Diabetes Threat

The major health threat is the early development of Type 2 diabetes (adult onset), particularly in children with a family history of the disease. Doctors are reporting a surge in young adolescents developing Type 2 diabetes – which can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, stroke, limb amputations, and blindness. People who develop diabetes in adolescence face a diminished quality of life and shortened life span, particularly if the disease progresses untreated. It's a scary prospect for our children but, in many cases, obesity and diabetes are preventable.

What Parents Can Do

When children are spending most of their free time sitting in front of televisions and computers, they are not outside running, jumping or engaging in team sports that would keep their weight down. Parents need to set limits on the time their children are engaged in passive activities. Pediatricians recommend restricting children to one to two hours per day on TV and computers combined – though older children may need additional time for learning activities.

Parental involvement remains the most important key to our children's healthy diets. Programs to educate parents about nutrition are essential. Fast foods should be consumed only in moderation. Caregivers, who are often busy and harried, must avoid the temptation to whisk their kids into fast-food restaurants or to pick up fast food for dinner at home. Changing eating habits and lifestyles is not easy, but the health benefit for our children is a wonderful payoff for parents willing to take on the task.

Here are important things parents can do to curtail the obesity epidemic among children:

  • Limit TV viewing and time on the computer to one or two hours per day.
  • Encourage participation in physical activity and sports.
  • Curtail visits to fast-food restaurants.
  • Provide nutritious, well-balanced, low-calorie, and low-fat meals.
  • Limit the availability of high-fat and high-sugar snacks in your home.

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