Dec. 11, 2001 -- As a nation, we are getting fatter, and that is especially true of our children. A new study confirms that over the last decade, childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., hitting boys, African Americans, Hispanics, and kids living in Southern states the hardest.
The research, published in the Dec. 12 issue of TheJournal of the American Medical Association, represents the most comprehensive national picture of weight trends among children over the last two decades. From 1986 to 1998, the number of non-Hispanic white children who were overweight doubled from 6% to 12%. The research suggests that roughly one in five African-American and Hispanic children are overweight -- a startling 120% increase during the 12-year study period.
So what is to blame for the rapidly expanding waistlines of kids and teens? Take this quick multiple-choice test:
A. It's the super-gigantic value meals served up at fast food restaurants;
B. Most young people spend their free time parked in front of TVs, computers, and video consoles;
C. There are soda machines found in just about every hallway of just about every school;
D. All of the above.
The experts say the right answer is D -- all these things are to blame.
"This is a little like the Agatha Christie story, Murder on the Orient Express, where there are many suspects and all of them are guilty," study co-author Harold A. Pollack, PhD, of the University of Michigan tells WebMD. "The best explanation is that there are many factors pushing kids toward becoming overweight. Children are consuming a higher percentage of their calories in high-fat foods and sodas, and they are more inactive than ever."
Pollack and co-author Richard S. Strauss, MD, of the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine, write that, like adolescent smoking, teen pregnancy, and youth violence, childhood weight problems arise from deeply rooted behaviors and social practices.
Weight-control specialist Christopher Still, MD, says the three Ns -- Nickelodeon, Netscape, and Nintendo -- are playing a large role in the obesity epidemic among children. As kids spend more and more time watching television, playing video games, or surfing the net, they are getting less exercise than ever, he says.
A study released last week by insurance provider CIGNA Corp. found that children now spend an average of 14 hours watching television per week. Children aged 12 to 14 average almost seven hours per week playing video games.
"There has been no shift in the gene pool over the last 20 years, so this has to be an environmental issue," says Still, who is director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa.
The trend is affecting far more than the weight of America's children. It is affecting their health. There has been a 10-fold increase in the number of children with type 2 diabetes during the past five years. Once called adult-onset diabetes, type 2 diabetes is linked to obesity and sedentary lifestyle.
"Until recently, type 2 diabetes was rare in kids," Still says. "Now it accounts for 40% to 50% of the diabetes among children." And when it comes to treating children, Still says that doctors are seeing more high blood pressure than have seen in the past -- another weight-related problem.
So what can be done to reverse this trend, and put kids on a healthier path? Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says the government can do a lot, with more money to beef up vanishing physical education programs in schools and to institute mass media public health campaigns to make people aware of the problem. CSPI is a Washington-based lobbying group that focuses on health and environmental issues.
Jacobson says it would be easy to pay for these initiatives by imposing small taxes on snack foods and soft drinks. About a dozen states now levy such a tax, and they raise $1 billion a year, he says.
There also are legislative efforts in a handful of states aimed at getting soft drink and snack food vending machines out of schools. Such efforts are being challenged by school systems, which generate revenue from the machines.
Still says sodas and other sugary drinks, including fruit juices, have played a huge role in the fattening of the nation's kids. One of the easiest ways to eliminate calories from a diet is to cut out sugary drinks, he says.
"People don't think about the calories they drink during a day, but the average kid may take in thousands of calories a week drinking regular sodas and fruit juices. I tell people who are trying to lose weight to eat their calories, not drink them."
Experts say these tips can also help parents help their children maintain a healthy weight:
- Keep the fatty and sugary snacks to a minimum at home.
- Set limits on TV, computer, and video game time.
- Make fitness a family affair, with activities designed to get everyone moving.
- Incorporate more fruits and vegetables into family meals.
- Review your own health habits. Children model the behaviors they see at home.