July 27, 2001 -- Would you like that meal super-sized? And before you answer, remember: You are what you eat. The extra-large portions being served up across the country are contributing to an increase in the number of overweight and obese children. And something needs to be done now to hold off obesity-related complications before its too late.
The latest statistics show that 13% of American children aged 6-11 are overweight -- up from 11% in 1994. Alarmingly, obesity-related diseases -- including type 2 diabetes and other historically adult diseases -- are rapidly increasing in children. More than half of obese children aged 5-10 have at least one risk factor for heart disease, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. More than 25% have two or more of these complications.
"The complications of childhood obesity are the risk factors that actually become the diseases of adulthood," says William H. Dietz, MD, PhD, the director of the division of nutrition and physical activity at the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in Atlanta.
The epidemic of childhood obesity is caused by both poor diet and reduced physical activity, he says. Consider that just one-third of children who live within a mile of school actually walk to school. And today, people watch almost five hours of television per day, compared with the average one to two hours in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, many parents are unaware of the risks of obesity and believe that excess weight is not a problem unless it affects a child's self-esteem.
But it's not too late -- or too early -- to make changes.
Start by breastfeeding, Dietz says. "The longer you breastfeed, the more likely your child will be of normal weight," he says. Although there are several theories, experts do not know exactly why breastfeeding protects against obesity.
Robert I. Berkowitz, MD, an associate professor at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, makes these additional suggestions:
- Parents, don't overload your children's plate. "Supersizing portions adds to the supersizing of our children," he says.
- Make the home a junk food-free zone.
- Shop for lower fat and less sugary foods. Remember, "there is nothing of nutritional value in soda."
- Eat in the dining room or kitchen, not in front of the TV. "Every time you turn the television on, you feel like eating," Berkowitz says.
Though prescription weight-loss drugs help adults shed pounds, no data is available on how well these drugs work in children. "So we can't recommend [weight loss medications] in children, but it will not surprise me if these recommendations are positive," he says.
Dieting, however, is an option, and dieting works better when children and parents do it together, Berkowitz adds.
One diet that has been successful among children is the traffic light diet. Children are taught to eat fewer red-light foods, such as ice cream, cheeseburgers, and fried foods, while yellow-light foods including skinless chicken or baked potatoes should be eaten cautiously. Green-light foods or low-calorie, high-fiber foods, such as lettuce, carrots, and cucumbers, can be eaten regularly.