Childhood Obesity

By Frederick Jerant

These days, the statistics on childhood obesity are astounding: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the condition in children ages 6 to 11 went from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008, with similar increases among adolescents.

We’re not talking about a couple of extra pounds; we’re talking seriously–and potentially dangerously–overweight.

In 2007, New Jersey’s then-health commissioner Dr. Fred Jacobs predicted that our current crop of youngsters would be the first generation that’s not expected to live longer than its parents.

The situation helped persuade First Lady Michelle Obama to launch “Let’s Move,” a public/private partnership focused on ending childhood obesity within a generation. “Let’s Move” takes a four-pronged approach:

• Offering parents the tools and information needed to make better decisions about children’s nutrition.
• Getting healthier foods in the schools.
• Improving the accessibility and affordability of healthy foods.
• Increasing opportunities for kids to play and move.

“Obese children face many consequences,” says Dr. Deborah Sundlof, D. O., a non-invasive cardiologist and medical director of the Women’s Cardiovascular and Wellness Center®, a subsidiary of Lehigh Valley Cardiology Associates, Bethlehem.

In addition to the psychosocial impact, she says, there are numerous physical health risks. “We’re seeing diseases in children that we commonly associate with adulthood, such as Type II diabetes and fatty livers.”

And 70% of obese children already have one cardiac risk factor such as hypertension, glucose intolerance and an adverse family history, she says; 39% have two or more risk factors.

If the trend continues, we could spend $344 billion on obesity-related diseases in 2018. Fortunately, parents of obese children can help reverse this trend.

“The family environment can set the stage for overeating,” says Jacqui Boyle, RD, LDN and vice president of Advantage Nutrition and Wellness, Bethlehem.  “We’re all busy, and that can lead to relying on fast foods that can have large portions, and thus more calories and fat.”

For example, a ¼-pound cheeseburger, medium fries and medium soda can add up to 900 calories—that’s ¾ of the recommended total daily calories for a seven–year-old.

Jennifer M. Doane, MS, RD, LDN, ATC and president of Advantage, suggests trying take-out rotisserie chicken, and “batch cooking” on weekends.  “That can be easy to do,” Doane adds, “especially with recipes that have only two or three ingredients. Slow cookers can be a big help, and so can countertop grillers for meat and fish.

“When you’re eating out, pick salads or fruit instead of fries; have a plain burger, instead of one with extra cheese and bacon; and drink water or milk, not sugary sodas,” she adds.

“Parents really need to get on board,” Doane concludes. “They’re the ones who control what’s brought home, and what’s served for meals.”

James Brown summed up another good approach when he sang “Get up offa that thing:”-regular exercise also helps trim excess poundage.

Traci Swanson, a Zumba Fitness instructor, teaches Zumbatomics, a kid-friendly version of the popular workout routine. “It mixes dance steps—based on the rhythms of merengue, salsa and pop favorites—and games that keep the kids moving,” Swanson says. “They have so much fun, they don’t realize how hard they’re working.

“Some overweight kids are exhausted by the end of the first session, but eventually, it gets easier—and they’re smiling all the way through,” she says.

Another alternative is working with a personal trainer, says Aaron Behrens, owner of Motivations Personal Training, Bethlehem. Based on a complete health assessment, he tailors a specific regimen to fit the case.

When working with obese children, he likes to mix it up. “With younger clients, a lot of activities occur in a gym,” he says, “like working through obstacle courses and doing age-appropriate calisthenics. I like to keep them moving.”

Older children might get involved with dumbbells, block stepping, exercise balls and jumping rope.

Behrens’s young clients get personalized attention, with a focus on proper technique, as they work to lose weight while increasing their strength and range-of-motion.

It’s important to get the parents involved, as well, Behrens says. “Take the kids outside—throw a ball, play tag, or just run around in a park. It’ll be good for the parents, too.”

“It’s hard to help overweight kids within the normal medical system,” says Kellyn Foundation medical director/co-founder Dr. Meagan  Grega, M.D. “Insurance won’t always cover visits if you’re ‘just’ overweight; you usually need another serious problem in order to get covered.”

The Bethlehem-based organization offers programs that include medical monitoring, nutritional counseling, structured exercise and a personalized interactive blog to help families change their lifestyles and follow healthier habits.

“We have programs in place at Family Tree Karate in Bethlehem Township, and Northampton Community College, and we hope to have another at Casa Guadelupe soon,” says executive director/co-founder Eric J. Ruth.

The Foundation assembles teams of doctors, nutritionists and other professionals and implements the programs.

Each group of 15-20 children is supervised by a doctor, and is expected to engage in healthy eating habits and regular exercise. They also use a daily blog to enter data about food, sleeping, exercising, and other activities. Through this online contact, the Foundation evaluates progress and offers tips and suggestions for improvement.

No matter what route you take, commitment is essential.

And that’s the key. “We’ve found that quick fixes for weight management don’t work,” Grega says. “You need a long-term commitment with kids and their families to sustain change.”

Frederick Jerant writes regularly about health-related topics for Lehigh Valley Marketplace.

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