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Spring 2009
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Childhood Obesity Rates Rapidly Increasing

Help your Children Maintain a Healthy Weight

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Parents and health providers in Central Texas and across the nation are concerned about the growing level of obesity among children.

Obesity is a chronic disease affecting increasing numbers of children and adolescents. Obesity rates among children in the United States have doubled since 1980 and have tripled for adolescents. Today, about 30-40 percent of kids are overweight or obese.

"We know this is a problem of epidemic proportions,” said Stephen J. Pont, MD, MPH, faculty member for The University of Texas Medical Branch at Austin and UT Austin, who practices at Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas as well as the East Austin Community Health Center. "We've been working with health problems in children that we only used to see in elderly adults. Now we see children with type 2 diabetes, adult cholesterol levels, hip and joint problems, gallbladder disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease as a result of being overweight.”

Dr. Pont added, “If we don't take drastic steps, we will soon see the first generation of children who have shorter life spans than their parents, primarily due to obesity. We know that organ systems can fail when a child's body is carrying more weight than it is designed to handle. It can lead to obstructive sleep apnea, cause damage to the lungs and lead to possible brain cell damage. It can desensitize the body to insulin and cause the heart to enlarge or fail. Joint and back pain may become so painful it requires surgery and, with these conditions, lifestyle begins to decline."

Depression and anxiety are also common for overweight children.

As an overweight child himself, Dr. Pont remembers facing problems similar to today's obese children: teasing at school, inability to find clothes that fit and difficulty learning new habits. He maintains a healthy weight now, but knows how hard it is to make changes.

"I enjoy working with patients one-on-one and helping to empower them to make healthy choices,” Dr. Pont said, “but we also need population level change. We currently have a toxic environment for children's health. Fast food is rampant, video games and TV are everywhere and streets are not safe enough for walking and playing. We need to address issues on so many levels. Society needs to make changes."

Taking Action

Parents play an important role in helping children maintain a healthy weight. Whether your child is obese or at risk of becoming overweight, you can take positive steps toward getting things on the right track. Here are some tips:

  • Focus on the positive with lots of positive reinforcement and encouragement. Emphasize the good - don’t focus on the bad. Guilt is closely woven in whenever weight is a challenge faced by families.
  • Gradually work to change family eating habits and activity levels rather than focusing on a child’s weight.
  • Be a role model. Parents who eat healthy foods and participate in physical activity set an example so that a child is more likely to do the same. Whether they admit it or not, kids are CLOSELY watching what their parents do. “Do as I say AND as I do…” Kids know that things are more important when their parents participate and place value on things.
  • Encourage physical activity. Children should have 60 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. More than 60 minutes of activity may promote weight loss and provide weight maintenance.
  • Reduce screen time in front of the television and computer to less than two hours daily.
  • Encourage children to eat when hungry and to eat slowly.
  • Avoid using food as a reward or withholding food as a punishment.
  • Stock the refrigerator with fat-free or low-fat milk, fresh fruit and vegetables instead of soft drinks and snacks high in sugar and fat. Keeping veggies and fruit washed and sliced will increase the chance that kids will eat them. You can also consider a healthy dipping sauce for veggies if that will encourage them being eaten. Just watch out for extra “hidden” calories in salad dressings and dipping sauces.
  • Provide at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Encourage children to drink water rather than beverages with added sugar such as soft drinks, sports drinks and fruit juice drinks.
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Good Health for Kids is produced by Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas.