by Carl Lowe
August 1, 2003
If your kids are like most
American children, they are in serious danger. Because of a
lifestyle that packs in too many calories and not enough
exercise, today's children are not just mildly overweight;
they are fat enough at younger and younger ages to threaten
All of the extra body fat kids carry around is not just a
cosmetic problem. Unless something is done quickly, this
overweight generation may be doomed to a lifetime of chronic
illness stemming from their excessive weight.
If you have kids, they are at risk. The time to take
action to save them is today. When researchers look at the
weight problems of today's youth, they are shocked and
dismayed. The juvenile weight problem has resulted in some
kids becoming obese-grossly overweight-by their third
birthdays. Scientists are also finding that, in many cases,
obese 10-year-olds now have livers that are already
malfunctioning because of too much body fat. At the same
time, their bodies, in an effort to cope with increases in
fat, are secreting high levels of insulin, making them prone
to type 2 diabetes, a disease usually found in older adults.
When pediatric endocrinologists at the University at
Buffalo analyzed the heights and weights of young children
who were referred to them, they found frightening levels of
obesity (Pediatric Academic Societies meeting 5/3/00).
"Childhood obesity not only affects a child's
self-esteem, it also is associated with multiple medical
consequences," says Teresa Quattrin, MD, professor of
pediatrics and director of the study. "High insulin levels
are believed to be related to type 2 diabetes, formerly
known as 'adult-onset diabetes.' In fact, the incidence of
type 2 diabetes in children has risen significantly in
recent years, along with a high prevalence of obesity."
"Children at risk of obesity must be identified very early,
even at the preschool level," she adds. "Obese children
often have obese parents, so an effective family-based
multi-factor intervention program should begin as soon as
obesity is diagnosed." Experts estimate that up to one in
three US children and adolescents is already obese, and the
numbers are rising. Children who are overweight are much
more likely to grow up to become overweight adults and to
suffer all of the health problems associated with adult
Experts believe that the best way to get children's
weight under control is to get family eating under control.
And the eating changes do not have to be drastic to produce
"Obesity is a family illness," says Debra Haire-Joshu,
PhD, director of the Obesity Prevention Center at Saint
Louis University School of Public Health. "Children...learn
to become obese in an environment that encourages it. If
parents are eating poorly, that's what they're providing
To help children eat a moderate diet, according to Dr.
Haire-Joshu, parents have to eat healthier first. In her
research (Preventive Medicine, 6/03), the Saint Louis
University School of Public Health joined with Parents As
Teachers (PAT), a national, free educational program for
parents of children from birth to age 3, to show parents
simple ways to eat healthier that they could share with
The researchers found that when they instructed the
entire family on eating fewer calories, fewer fried foods
and more fruits and vegetables, everyone, including the
young children, benefited.
"What we showed in the study is parents who institute
very simple changes can significantly impact their health.
When parents have kids, they want the best for their kids.
We get them at a very teachable moment," Dr. Haire-Joshu
says. But society and the media produce an environment that
encourages kids to eat gooey, calorie-dense food and stay
glued to the television.
"Our society receives consistent messages to eat more and
move less. This is a way to balance some of those messages
to very young families," warns Dr. Haire-Joshu.
Dr. Haire-Joshu says that her study shows parents are
more likely to start on healthier diets when the dietary
changes are relatively small. For example, instead of
completely revamping meals, families that ate fried foods at
five dinners during the week tried cutting back to four
fried dinners. Or mothers who consistently ate at fast food
restaurants were encouraged to add lettuce and tomato to a
smaller burger than the supersize they usually ordered.
Don't wait. Make those kinds of changes today to help
your kids control their weight. Their health is at stake.