Friday, October 8, 2010

Stopping Childhood Obesity

At the recent American Academy of Pediatrics' conference this past weekend, childhood obesity was a recurring theme. Obesity is primarily influenced by environment, something that parents have a fair amount of control over. What you feed your child, how active they are, whether you restrict screen time or not, and how much sleep they get all affect your child's weight. With one in three U.S. children now overweight or obese, though, clearly something has broken down.

In his session "Identifying and Treating Obesity Related Comorbidities," William J. Cochran, MD cited these jarring facts:
  • Forty percent of children ages one to five years old have a television in their bedrooms, contributing to sendentary screen time
  • About 20% of overweight and obese children get too many calories from sugary drinks such as soda
  • Most parents and their children don't understand how big a portion of food is, making it hard for them to gauge their food intake
  • If a child's parents are obese, that child has a 60% chance of becoming obese. If a child's parents are normal weight, that child has a 9% chance of becoming obese
The CDC states that our society is also "obesogenic," rife with unhealthy food choices and sedentary lifestyles. A family's lack of knowledge or tools to stop obesity just adds to the problem.

The question is what to do about obesity. Policy changes and initatives can help, such as Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign to reinforce healthy behaviors in kids. There have been more extreme measures to stop obesity as well. Because obesity and its unhealthy extreme, morbid obesity, can cause a host of other health problems, such as Type II diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and heart disease, on rare occasions parents of morbidly obese children or teens are charged with child neglect or abuse, as a single mother was in 2009 when her 14-year old son weighed 555 pounds. Most pediatricians are understandably reluctant to go down this path, since it would be best if the family could makes changes to help the child control or lose weight.

At the AAP conference, the Nestle Nutrition Institute and the AAP announced a new campaign to stop childhood obesity before it starts, by trying to instill good eating habits in children ages 0 to age 4. Their Healthy Living for Active Families (HALF) Project plans to distribute materials about healthy eating, serving sizes, and physical activity in pediatricians' offices, workplaces, and child care facilities.

Admittedly, Nestle is an odd partner, with its well-known candy brands and scandals over formula marketing in developing countries. Hopefully the AAP's voice will dominate the discussion, and get parents to take the threat of obesity seriously.

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