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Kids May Suffer Most From Obesity Epidemic


WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Annie Finnegan

July 20, 2000 -- Obesity is fast becoming an epidemic in the U.S., and perhaps no group is as hard hit as American children.

In children, obesity is loosely defined as a weight that is 20% or more in excess of the expected weight for a given height. Although many parents think their kids will "grow into it", obese kids who remain heavy through adolescence tend to stay that way into adulthood.

The resulting illnesses associated with obesity in adulthood -- diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and several cancers -- now claim an estimated half-million American lives per year, costing $100 billion in medical expenses and lost productivity.

"Obese or overweight children are at an increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes and all the consequences of diabetes like kidney failure, congestive heart failure, [high blood pressure], elevated risk of [arthritis] and shortened life span," says Denise Bruner, MD, an obesity specialist on Arlington, Va.

The bottom line is that "there are no virtues to obesity," says Harvey Hecht, MD, director of preventive cardiology and cardiac imaging at the Arizona Heart Institute in Phoenix.

"The heart is a pump," he says. "Envision an engine powering a car. The larger the car, the more stress on the engine. If you are overweight, your heart has to work harder and that puts a strain on the heart.

"Most cholesterol disorders are aggravated by increases in weight and blood pressure increases along with body mass," he says. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease.

In addition, "obese children and adults are less likely to exercise and reap the health benefits of regular exercise," Hecht says. Regular physical activity is associated with enhanced physical and emotional health.

According to Bruner, there is an epidemic of childhood obesity in America for several reasons. "We are seeing an epidemic because children mimic their parents behavior," she says. Further complicating matters, among parents of a severely obese child, 8% will think the child is actually underweight, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"In our country, there has been a decrease in the importance of physical activity," Bruner tells WebMD. "Physical education in school is archaic -- an anomaly." Bruner is also president of the Society for Bariatric Physicians, which is a group for obesity specialists.

Additionally, children often sit in front of computers, video games, or the television instead of going outside and playing because often being indoors is safer than being outdoors. Hours spent in front of the television increase a child's risk of becoming obese, according to a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

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