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Prevent Childhood Obesity

by Beth Hering
The Challenge

Childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Center for Disease Control. Nearly 20 percent of kids ages 6 to 11 are obese, as are about 18 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 19. Without help to control their weight, obese children are prime targets for a variety of health-related problems, including heart disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems, asthma, and sleeping disorders.

Children who are obese often turn into adults who likewise have problems with their weight. Unhealthy weight gain due to poor diet and lack of exercise is responsible for over 300,000 deaths each year. The annual cost to society for obesity is estimated at $190 billion.

But besides the physical toll, overweight children often suffer emotionally. Classmates may mercilessly tease them about their appearance, both in person and via cyberbullying, and even adults may give into stereotypes that these children are “lazy” or “worthless.” These hurtful comments can affect self-esteem, with potential consequences such as extreme shyness, depression, anxiety, and even suicide.

Causes of childhood obesity include:

  • Reduced activity levels –- Kids simply aren’t getting enough exercise. Kids and teens spend 2 to more than 4 hours a day watching TV, DVDs, or videos. When computer use and video games are included, time spent in front of a screen increases to over 7 hours a day!
  • Increased consumption, especially of unhealthy foods – From fat-laden fast food to prepackaged meals and snacks to readily available soft drinks and other sugar-filled beverages to increased portion sizes, kids today are eating more nutritionally-dense foods and in greater quantities.

To make matters worse, many fast food companies target children in their marketing campaigns, and some schools offer soft drinks and junk food to students.

Fortunately, there is hope for obese children. With help and guidance from the adults in their lives, their weight and health can be improved.

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  • Don't reward children with food. Candy and snacks as a reward encourage bad habits. Find other ways to celebrate good behavior.
  • Practice what you preach. If you're practicing healthy habits, it's a lot easier to convince children to do the same. Incorporate healthy activities into the time you spend with children. Take walks, ride bikes, go swimming, garden or just play hide-and-seek outside. Everyone will benefit from the exercise and the time together.
  • Limit TV, video game, and computer time.
  • Bring kid-friendly, healthy snacks to classroom parties and other school events.
  • Get kids to be active at your child’s next birthday party by bowling, roller skating, or playing picnic games.
  • Encourage school administrators to join the HealthierUS School Challenge. This nationwide award program, created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, challenges schools to promote good nutrition and physical activity. Schools that are doing the very best work are recognized, and high-achieving schools even receive monetary incentives.
  • Become involved in the National Farm to School Network, which connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, and offering health and nutrition education opportunities.
  • Take a moment to examine the vending machines at local institutions such as libraries, schools, and community centers. If they are filled with sugary or fat-laden options, talk with management about offering healthier alternatives.
  • Join forces with neighbors or community groups to keep local parks clean. Providing children with a safe, attractive area in which to play encourages activity.

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