Childhood Obesity - Who is to Blame?
By Dorothy Sander, for Revive Your Life
The percentage of overweight children between the ages of 2 and 19 years has risen from 13% in 1999 to 17.1% today, according to research provided by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Other research suggests that this figure may be a conservative estimate. This information tells us that 12.5 million children in this country are considered obese and facing unnecessary health risks such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. They are also suffering emotional consequences with an increased likelihood of depression and low self-esteem. Discrimination against the obese is still alive and well - we all know how cruel children can be to one another.
Everyone is asking the question, “who is to blame?” Perhaps we think if we figure out who is to blame we can then fix the problem. This dialogue may seem annoying and unproductive, but we have learned a great deal from this conversation and are continuing to learn more every day. Fortunately, as a result, changes are being made. New programs are being developed and introduced both in our schools and through our social services departments.
As we continue to discuss and address this problem, there are four elements that must be considered.
Nature vs. Nurture
A recent study performed in London revealed that a child’s genetic disposition toward obesity plays a larger part than diet and lifestyle in determining whether or not a child will be overweight. Some kids (and adults) just gain weight more easily. Does this mean that more kids have these “fat genes” than in previous years? Does this research indicate that we cannot help kids with this “fat gene” to avoid becoming obese? The answer to both questions is “no”.
There are not necessarily more kids with the “fat gene”, but rather, there are more kids with the “fat gene” who are seeing it manifested by today’s unhealthy dietary changes. These children can avoid being obese but they may need extra help from parents and other adults to limit their weight gain. What this tells us is, just as a person has a predisposition toward alcoholism, cancer, or heart disease, the awareness alone gives the individual a tool to work towards prevention. Recognizing that all children (or adults) are not equal in this regard informs us that different solutions may be necessary for each individual. This information alone, imparted to parents, schools and the children themselves will allow these children to face their problem more easily and work with his/her own strengths and weaknesses.
The Responsibility of the Parent
A parent who takes the time and effort to know their child, their particular predispositions, weaknesses and strengths, can work with the child to help them overcome obesity and, for that matter, any other problem they encounter.
Parents must educate themselves regarding diet and exercise and begin to understand and accept that they are the single most influential force in their child’s life. They set the standard, their own healthy or unhealthy lifestyles being the best teacher. Children learn every day from watching how their parents deal with life. If a parent celebrates by eating ice cream, their children will learn to reward their own successes with food.
Therefore, it would behoove each and every parent to examine their own eating and exercise habits and patterns and implement positive routines for the entire family. This is more difficult to do when small children spend many hours in daycare before even starting school, but parents can be attentive to the diet and exercise that is available in the care centers they select. Whenever and wherever possible, parents must encourage healthy eating and exercise in their children at all ages and show, by example, how it is done.
Interestingly enough, another recent study suggests that obesity in children may have more to do with what they drink than what they eat. Between 1978 and 1994 the amount of soft drinks consumed by teenagers each year tripled, from 20 gallons to 64 gallons of empty calories. Children between the ages of 6 and 11 during the same period doubled their consumption of high sugar drinks. This is a huge increase in daily caloric intake, offering no nutritional value that can easily cause a child to gain weight. It also points to one obvious place where parents, daycare centers and schools can make a quick, easy change. Take soft drinks, Kool Aid, etc. off the menu entirely, except perhaps on special occasions. This alone could have a significant impact on the obesity statistics.
The Responsibility of the Schools
Many schools systems throughout the country have already taken steps to improve the nutritional value of their lunch menu. In addition, many have removed soda and snack vending machines while replacing them with water and healthy snack offerings. Schools have also started to examine the physical education requirements being offered to ensure that they include adequate amounts of exercise. These changes will take time to enact, and the beneficial results will not be realized in the statistics anytime soon. Fortunately though, these changes are in motion.
Parents can speed this process by becoming involved in their child’s school with regards to this issue. If your child’s school has been slow to react, band together with other parents and approach someone who can implement the change such as the principal, school superintendent, or the school board. Parents must speak out and make themselves heard for real change to occur.
The Responsibility of the Child
Many adults think that children are highly capable of controlling their own eating habits. Maturity and self-awareness play a large part in ones ability to assert self-control. Young children do not understand the consequences of obesity nor do many even understand that they have control over their eating and its results. Therefore, it is essential for parents to assist their children in modifying their diet and instruct them regarding the facts of healthful eating and exercise. The earlier this process begins the more effective it will be.
An older child can be helped as well, but with a different approach. The older the child the more participation can be expected and the more beneficial that participation will be. It is extremely important to avoid creating a battle ground in this arena. The parent is there to educate, help and support their child. It is helpful for them to realize that the older the child the less control they as parents will actually have. Therefore, it is essential to garner a child’s respect and cooperation. Actions motivated by anger and a desire to control a child’s eating will only prove destructive. A counselor can be enlisted to help negotiate this sometimes difficult terrain.
While genetics and other outside influences play an important role in the determination of childhood obesity, the parents and other adult community leaders must do their part to provide instruction and set positive examples. Children will be open and receptive to nutritional and other wellness instruction if presented fairly and consistently.