The Union Recorder

March 16, 2010

Childhood obesity a crucial health issue

The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE — Obesity during childhood and adolescence is rapidly becoming one of the most crucial health care issues facing children today. What was once an uncommon condition for children has become commonplace, as the prevalence of obesity has increased at an alarming rate over the last 20 years.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), all age groups have seen increases in obesity. Over the period from 1980 to 2003, obesity in children aged 2 to 5 years increased from 5 percent to 12.4 percent; children aged 6 to 11 saw obesity increase from 6.5 percent to 17 percent; and obesity in children aged 12 to 19 increased from 5 percent to 17.6 percent.

While the basics of good nutrition and exercise have always been and will continue to be the backbone of maintaining a healthy weight, the application of those principles is often difficult to execute. As difficult as it may be, obesity in childhood is something that absolutely must be dealt with if our children are to enjoy a lifetime of good health.

One of the first steps in dealing with obesity is assessing your child’s overall health. At every checkup the child’s height and weight are measured, and starting at age 2 the Body Mass Index (BMI) is calculated.

Although there are multiple measurements of body composition that can be used to calculate their children's status as normal weight, overweight, or obese, the BMI is the most widely accepted due to the ease of its calculation and its use as an initial screening tool. Your child’s pediatrician should be able to tell you their BMI, and whether your child is overweight or obese.

If it’s not mentioned as part of the checkup, feel free to ask about it and then address any other questions that may arise. If your child is at a healthy weight for their age and height, you can discuss ways to maintain that healthy status. If your child is overweight or obese, most pediatricians will be happy to help your family develop a plan to address this issue.

Although the factors that combine to cause someone to be overweight or obese are complex, the basic cause is fairly simple: high calorie intake combined with low levels of physical activity. Taking in more calories than are used from physical activity and metabolism will cause weight gain.

Genetics is often cited as a reason that someone has difficulty maintaining a healthy weight. Although genetics do play a role, environment and behavior (diet and exercise habits) usually contribute as well for excessive weight gain to occur.

Other medical conditions are also discussed and questioned at times by patients and parents seeking to understand the cause of their overweight or obese status. Although hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease and other medical conditions can and do contribute to weight gain, in the big picture they are not a large contributor.

Less than 1 percent of all patients who are overweight or obese have an underlying metabolic or hormonal imbalance that is to blame (although you should certainly discuss any concerns about these or other conditions with your child’s pediatrician). The majority of the time it is primarily due to a combination of poor eating and activity habits.

The long-term effects of obesity on an individual’s health are well established. The consequences of obesity are far-reaching for both physical and psychological health. Psychologically, children who are overweight or obese face social isolation, discrimination and teasing, which over time can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and other psychological problems.

Medically, obese children are at increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease and sleep apnea, to name just a few.

The time to act is now. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 20 percent of children who are obese when they are 4 years old are obese as adults. The numbers for adolescents are even more staggering: 80 percent of obese 10- to 15-year-olds will be obese as adults. Individuals who are obese their entire adult life will lose on average 20 years from their life expectancy.

The current generation of children, if obesity trends continue at their current rates, will be the first generation in the last century to have a lower life expectancy than the generation before them. Talk to your child’s pediatrician. He or she should be able to help you formulate a manageable approach to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle.

Choose lean meats, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and encourage your children to play actively for 60 minutes a day. Maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle is a lifelong commitment, and if our children are to be successful, we must provide an example for them.

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Oconee Regional Medical Center is proud to have Dr. Marshall Ivey speak as part of its monthly “To Your Health” lecture series. You are invited to this free event at 6 p.m. March 18 in the Education Center of ORMC. Light refreshments will be served.

For more information about this event or for suggestions about future health topics, call the Education Center at 454-3705.

Marshall W. Ivey, M.D., F.A.A.P.