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Childhood obesity: a growing problem

Part I of III: Lack of exercise and poor eating habits create health hazard for students countywide

Posted: August 15, 2009 8:51 p.m.
Updated: August 16, 2009 4:55 a.m.

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department found that an "unacceptably high" 22.9 percent of children are obese. Another 19.4 percent of children are overweight, according to the study released in July 2008.

You don’t have to go far to see the effects of the fast-food diet and stationary lifestyle many children live with every day.

“Go to any elementary, junior high or high school and (you’ll) see this trend of increasing percentage of overweight kids,” said Dr. Paul Horowitz, a pediatrician with Discovery Pediatrics in Valencia.

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department found that an “unacceptably high” 22.9 percent of children are obese. Another 19.4 percent of children are overweight, according to the study released in July 2008.

The study found an “alarmingly rapid increase” in the percentage of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students who are obese.

Obesity is a medical condition in which excess body fat poses a danger to good health and lengthy life expectancy. Health care providers usually use body mass index, which compares weight and height, to determine whether individuals are a healthy weight, are overweight, or are obese.

Children who are severely obese increased from 3.1 percent in 1999 to 4.5 percent in 2007, researchers found.

Many reasons for the trend can be cited, but researchers point to two main problems: an unhealthful diet paired with a lack of exercise.

Children are bombarded with messages about junk food as well as opportunities to partake of it, said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the county Public Health Department.

“You can snack every 20 feet,” he said.

Add to that a stagnant lifestyle, and kids are eating more and exercising less.

“We have more and more screens: television, video games, computers,” all of which encourage lack of activity, Fielding said.

“All together, that’s a bad prescription.”

 ‘A complete stress on their body’
Children who are overweight or obese at a young age are more likely to stay out of shape as adults, Horowitz said.

Not only does that lead to health risks, but obesity can create problems with reduced productivity in the workplace, Horowitz said.

“It’s a complete stress on their body. It’s beyond what their body is engineered to do,” he said.

When treating young patients, Horowitz often explains that bodies are able to store fat for bleak times.

“The problem is that we are not exposed to periods of relative famine or starvation,” Horowitz said. “So we just have these stored-up calories in our fat cells that go unused. Instead, we just have to lumber around, carrying that extra weight.”

Researchers have linked childhood obesity to severe health problems that can develop early on or later in adulthood.

Those health problems include: asthma, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, fatty liver, sleep apnea and orthopedic problems, according to the study.

Besides physical problems, a number of social conditions — including depression, low self-esteem, social stigmatization and a negative body image — have been connected to childhood obesity, the study finds.

Poor eating habits
Portion sizes are growing with the waistbands of children.

Fast food, which serves meals high in calories and fat with little nutritional value, is a common option for breakfast, lunch and dinner among today’s on-the-go youth.

Opportunities to “super size” meals abound.

“I think we need to change people’s views of overeating,” Fielding said. “Change their views of what’s appropriate amounts of food.”

While schools have cut back on soda and junk food offerings, television ads send an entirely different message.

The county study faults food advertising on television. By one estimation, children are exposed to more than 30,000 television ads a year with half of all advertising on children’s shows pitching food.

Health officials across the country have worked with school districts to promote healthful eating.

But schools only have so much control. Kids often bring food from home.

“What you serve (in schools) and what kids eat is not always the same,” Fielding said.

For instance, the William S. Hart Union High School District serves food in its cafeterias that meets strict federal guidelines for calorie and fat content.

But with parent permission, high school juniors and seniors are allowed to go off campus for lunch, which means students can, and often do, eat at fast-food restaurants.

Also, student organizations and PTAs uses food such as desserts and junk food for fundraisers.

Healthy eating starts at home
At home, parents need to take charge, experts agree.

“Parents could also play a greater role in helping to promote a healthy lifestyle for their children by modeling good behavior,” Horowitz said.

Many parents think that children won’t eat healthful foods, but they have more control of their children’s attitudes than they believe, Horowitz said.

“One of the best things that families can do is teach the children how to help prepare meals,” Horowitz said.

Involving kids in the food-selection process by taking them to a grocery store or a farmer’s market gives them control and insight into what they’re eating.

Local grocery stores like Bristol Farms and Whole Foods and the local farmer’s markets will often give tours for children.

Parents and children can download recipes for healthy-meal Web sites and prepare them together.

Families can take trips to places like Lombardi Ranch to show where food comes from, he said.

“You’d be surprised by what they’d eat,” Horowitz said. “They’ll eat asparagus, zucchini, fish; things that parents hesitate to give to their kids because they suspect that kids won’t eat them,” he said.

Small steps to success

The county study shows that obesity among children soared from 18.9 percent in 1999 to 23.3 percent in 2005, but recent data shows the percentage of obese children in Los Angeles County has stabilized over the last two years.

Experts believe legislation regulating what can be served in public schools, and schools’ efforts to improve their fare, are working.

Senate Bill 12, passed in 2005 and effective in 2007, banned the sale of junk food in schools, the study said. Another bill, Senate Bill 965, which went into effect July 1, bans the sale of sodas in scools.

Battling the bulge
In order to really conquer childhood obesity, Horowitz believes it’s “going to take a village.” That means taking a multi-faceted approach to reach out to children and their families.

“In Santa Clarita, it needs to be a priority,” he said. “It’s going to take people from school districts, people from various businesses,” and parental involvement.

“Ultimately, it’s not a legislative issue as much as a personal responsibility issue,” he said.

Simple personal decisions like taking stairs instead of the elevator, biking and walking instead of driving everywhere, and reading food nutrition labels can promote a healthful lifestyle.

School districts are already making strides by banning high-calorie drinks in schools, and their efforts are improving obesity rates in students, Horowitz said.

“That’s not where the home run is going to be,” Horowitz said. “The home run will be by improving the education to a point where you have a population of kids who say, ‘I want to live a healthy lifestyle. I don’t want to die of heart disease in my 40s.’”



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