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Taming the Childhood Obesity Monster

Taming the Childhood Obesity Monster

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Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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Some of childhood's scariest dangers lurk in our own kitchens and jump up from the bathroom scale. Childhood obesity is epidemic and putting a large percentage of our youngest population at risk for developing life-threatening diseases. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says childhood obesity rates have doubled and tripled in the last 20 years. The good news? It doesn't take a superhero to save our kids from monster-sized health risks. All it takes is dedicated parents who are willing to make a few changes.

What's the Problem?
There's no real mystery; it's basic math. Too many calories consumed minus too few calories burned equals weight gain. American kids eat and drink too many unhealthy, unnecessary calories and don't get enough exercise. They don't go out and play like they used to. Busy parents resort to processed foods, and turn to computer and television screens in place of exercising with their children. It all adds up.

Carol Foster, MD, Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology at the Utah Diabetes Center at University of Utah Health Care, says: "American children are facing adult diseases like type-two diabetes, hypertension, fatty livers, hypercholesterolemia and hypertension. We're afraid children born now will have shorter life spans than the current generation due to obesity."

"In addition to the physical health issues," Foster adds, "obesity in children and teens leads to low self-esteem." According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, the longer children are overweight, the more at risk they are for depression and other mental health disorders. Another study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that obese kids were 5.5 times more likely to have an impaired quality of life than healthy kids, putting their life experience on par with kids undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

Ellie Brownstein, MD, pediatrician with University of Utah Health Care, says, "This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I talk to parents and patients about this every day. I was overweight as a kid and it had a big emotional impact. As a working parent, I know how challenging this is, but as a pediatrician, I know it's critical."

Measuring Obesity
Checking a child's height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) is part of a standard pediatric doctor's visit. "We graph growth over the years on a chart to see where trends lie," Brownstein says. "If I'm concerned, I'll show the chart to parents and open a discussion about healthy weight. Frequently, it's the parents or [children] themselves who bring up the subject."

"Young children are never encouraged to lose weight," says Brownstein. "Instead, we help parents set goals to decrease their rate of gain or maintain their weight while adding height." Brownstein says pediatricians set different goals for teens or severely obese children, depending on their individual health concerns.

Drinking to Their Health
Brownstein's No. 1 suggestion for controlling calories? Change what children are drinking. "Sugar-sweetened drinks, including fruit juice and soda, have about twenty calories per ounce. Just because the label says, 'one hundred percent fruit juice' doesn't mean it's healthy. Essentially, they're taking the sugar from multiple pieces of fruit and putting them in one glass. Instead, I tell parents to give their kids fruit, a healthy amount of low-fat milk, and water."

Foster agrees. "Fruit juice has little to no nutritional value and is no better than soda pop." She offers these nutrition tips to help prevent obesity and its poor-health consequences:

  • Healthy eating habits begin at a young age--so get them started young
  • Include fruits and vegetables in every meal
  • Introduce whole grains
  • Serve low-fat dairy products
  • Control portion sizes
  • Limit sugary drinks (including fruit juice) to special occasions only

Visit for more dietary information.

Family Fitness
Excess calories are only half the equation. "Parents must support and model an active lifestyle," Brownstein says. "Make it a family matter. Limit TV and computer time. Walk with your child to school or after dinner. Go to the park or bike [ride]. Encourage new activities like ice-skating, sports and dance."

Parents shouldn't try to change everything all at once. Brownstein tells parents to make changes gradually to get started, and when the new habit is comfortable, add another. One step at a time, you can be our child's personal superhero and keep them healthy for life.

Reprinted with permission from

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