Childhood Obesity: The Facts Behind the 'Epidemic'

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A look at causes, effects, and calls to action around this controversial topic.
5 Tips to Prevent Childhood Obesity

Registered dietician Laura Cipullo offers five tips to help your children lead a healthy lifestyle

 Childhood Obesity

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Where does America stand on childhood obesity?

These aren't new ideas. The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition reports that only one-in-three children are active daily. Furthermore, children reportedly now spend more than seven-and-a-half hours a day in front of a screen, whether it is a TV, computer, or video game.

Other theories suggest that while physical constraints like poor diet and limited activity are absolutely relevant, they are only part of the equation. The Daily Mail reported that there were studies that linked style of parenting to obesity. Children of those who were too strict with food, without explaining why certain foods are not good to consume in mass quantities, tended to be more obese.

“I think we need to be careful to not confuse correlation with causality, and recognize that there are numerous factors that may influence a child’s weight,” says David Katzenstein, a psychotherapist in private practice in Brooklyn, specializing in child and adolescent issues, and an adjunct professor of psychology at Touro College. “That being said, parents who are rigid and don’t verbalize reasoning for the rules they dictate to their children may unwittingly be causing stress, which can lead to overeating, as well as bringing up children who have little autonomy over the choices they make. Food intake — whether we are talking about starvation or overeating — is very much about control, and the study may be illuminating the notion that children need some sense of control, and when they don’t feel that sense, will find ways to obtain it.”

As child and adolescent psychiatrist Rohit Chandra, MD, puts it, “Food can be used to help a stressed child cope, and I think this stress and the use of food as a coping tool should be recognized by parents, teachers, and health care professionals as a potential problem.”

Many schools today are making better efforts to improve lunches and increase activity. Over a five-year period, obesity rates dropped in Philadelphia and New York City by almost five percent and in Mississippi, traditionally one of the "fattest" states in the nation, the obesity rate plummeted by more than 13 percent, all of these reductions correlating with programs undertaken in each state. There are plenty of other initiatives in place to combat obesity. One with a particularly high profile is Michelle Obama’s "Let’s Move!" program, which has gained national traction and inspired the launch of the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, aimed at reducing childhood obesity nationwide by five percent by 2030.

But parents need to do the work at home too.

“It is always best to have the child seen by the pediatrician,” advises Deborah Levy to parents who are fearful of their children becoming obese. “If necessary, the doctor can also make recommendations for a nutritionist in the area. An experienced registered dietitian can help educate you and your child and develop an individualized meal plan that will work for you.”

Parents also need to lead by example, says Deborah Enos.

“Practice what you preach!" she says. "Let your kids see you choose, prep (with their help), and consume at least five fruits and vegetables per day.”

David Katzenstein seconds that motion.

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“Parents can promote and instill in their children a healthy relationship with food by having an open dialogue focusing on promoting healthy eating habits rather than on 'not becoming fat,”  he says. “Have your children read the nutrition facts on food boxes — while eating their breakfast cereal is a great time for this — and talk to them about what sugars, fats, or sodium mean and how they affect their bodies. Unfortunately, too many parents go with, “You have to eat what I tell you to eat because I said so, and I can eat whatever I want because I am the parent.” If parents can model and have healthy relationships with food, a child will see that and feel that much more encouraged to develop healthy eating habits too."