By Bharat Venkatesh
The price, convenience and addictive taste of junk food and fast food can be alluring to schools trying to save money and parents without enough time to prepare more nutritious food for their children. However, a lax attitude toward childhood nutrition is dangerous for children’s health and can have long-term consequences.
It is a mistaken presumption that the robust metabolism of childhood can stave off problems resulting from unhealthy eating habits. Simply overlooking what and how much a child is eating is no better. You might be surprised by how many health traps our society has in place for children—with junk food being the norm at most extracurricular activities where students meet for sports, afterschool clubs or just to hang out.
Childhood obesity can result from environmental, behavioral and even genetic factors—but being predisposed to obesity does not mean one is destined to become obese. Some of the core causes of obesity include energy imbalance, overconsumption, lack of physical activity, poor diet, high intake of processed foods, food insecurity, lack of education on healthy eating and eating out instead of having healthy family meals at home. Childhood obesity is distinct from adult obesity and should be treated as a chronic condition that needs to be addressed and treated comprehensively.
“Parents need to be proactive in involving their kids in learning about healthy eating,” says Lisa Kandell, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in pediatric nutrition. “Parents have the responsibility of providing healthy foods in the appropriate amounts. Family meals are important, and taking kids grocery shopping helps them to learn about choosing healthy foods.”
Childhood obesity often results in lasting impacts to physical, social and emotional health. Obese children tend to become obese adults, and a significant number of health issues can arise in early adulthood because of childhood obesity. Excess abdominal fat, high triglyceride levels, low HDL cholesterol levels and high blood sugar—a set of risk factors known collectively as metabolic syndrome—can result in a vastly increased risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Obesity also can cause respiratory problems leading to obstructive sleep apnea and asthma, various musculoskeletal and joint problems, gastrointestinal problems such as fatty liver disease and gastroesophageal reflux, and cancer.
Children with obesity are often stigmatized by their peers or experience bullying, which can lead to anxiety, depression, lowered self-esteem and other psychological issues that can affect the way they function in society. Their demoralized outlook and social isolation increase the number of days they miss school on top of days lost due to exacerbated health issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“Obese children are often the target of bullying, and this can lead to emotional problems,” Kandell said. “They can feel more self-conscious and thus avoid participating in activities that would improve their health.”
Because the incidence of obesity in children is influenced by many aspects of society—including their home life, community, child care setting, schools and the media—it is important to monitor a child’s growth during regularly scheduled well visits with their family physician or pediatrician.
“Their Body Mass Index (BMI) needs to be closely monitored and if there is any deviation from a child’s established ‘curve,’ they should be referred to a pediatric dietitian or nutritionist for evaluation and education to ensure appropriate growth and development,” said Kandell. “All too often, it is delayed as the problem doesn’t seem that serious; however, it poses a greater risk to delay a referral as children become more severely overweight the longer it is delayed.”
Childhood obesity is “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century” according to the World Health Organization. Moreover, the percentage of obese children in the United States has increased threefold in the last 50 years, according to a report compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2014. The State of Obesity, a project of the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, describes a 19.8 percent obesity rate for Arizona children between the ages of 10 and 17, giving our state the seventh highest obesity rate in the nation for that age bracket.
To address the problem, various governmental, for-profit and non-profit organizations have taken a stand against childhood obesity. Because schools are an integral part of a child’s life, the CDC has a comprehensive framework recommending policies and practices that help schools create an environment supporting healthier food choices and nutrition education for students.
The Arizona Department of Education also has its own nutritional standards for school lunches, snacks, school stores, beverages and vending machines that go beyond the requirements enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Arizona Nutrition Standards define standards detailing maximum portion sizes and prohibitions on certain types of food and beverages while setting guidelines for other classes of school food. Other efforts in our state include:
- The Arizona Nutrition Network is a statewide program providing nutrition education with a vision to shape food consumption in the state by partnering with health departments, the University of Arizona, Native American tribes, school districts, food banks and non-profit agencies.
- The Arizona Department of Health Services Empower Program subsidizes child-care licensing fees for facilities that “empower children to lead healthy lives.”
- Garden Kitchen in South Tucson began as a nutrition program but now incorporates various activities and events encouraging families to make healthy choices, cook healthy meals and stock healthy ingredients—even for those in poor socioeconomic conditions.
So what can you do at home to prevent or manage childhood obesity? Rather than eating out, consider eating nutritional, home-cooked meals more often. Start a family exercise habit and encourage more sporting activities in lieu of evenings spent in front of the television. Sign up for a few classes with a nutritionist and learn how to shop and cook healthy and affordable meals without straining your budget. As with most things, change begins at home.
Bharat Venkatesh is a Tempe journalist who believes spreading awareness about the importance of sustainability should be part of every journalist’s ethical goal to seek the truth and report it.