Child obesity grows, lifestyles to blame

Travis Austin

Travis Austin

By Angela Loiacono

This is the second part of a three-day series on the American obesity pandemic.

At the age of 14, Molly Schneider was about 190 pounds. By the time she was 22 years old her weight had escalated to 311 pounds. Her repeated diet attempts failed. She suffered emotional anguish, low self-esteem and depression set in. A stroke, weight-loss surgery and years later, Schneider is just now starting her life over.

Childhood obesity is on the rise and is affecting an alarming amount of children and adolescents across the country. It brings along with it several health and social consequences that may affect children well into adulthood. A vast number of factors also contribute to its increasing prevalence in the United States.

“(Childhood obesity) is an epidemic,” said Tricia Cross, the fitness director at FitClub in Springfield. “Kids are growing up thinking that a normal, balanced meal is a hamburger, fries and a Coke.”

The percentage of young people who are overweight in the United States has more than tripled since 1980. Among children and adolescents ages six to 19, 16 percent, or about nine million, are considered obese, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This year is one of the first years that experts are saying that children entering the kindergarten will have a lower life expectancy,” said Kristen Delgado, fitness trainer at Bally Total Fitness in Naperville. “I’ve seen kids that are at least 15 pounds overweight, and for a five-year-old or a 6-year-old, that is just ridiculous.”

In the past 30 years, the rate of obesity among preschoolers and adolescents has more than doubled. Children and adolescents are also consuming diets that lack essential fruits and vegetables.

Everything from genetics to environment can profoundly contribute to the onset of childhood obesity in America.

“There is definitely an environmental component to it,” said Donald Layman, professor of nutrition at the University. “There is also a genetic component to it, but you’re in an environment that has bad food habits, so chances are you will be overweight.”

There is also a large lack in education of what a proper serving size is. Many children also snack constantly without realizing.

“I seemed to eat small meals, even as an adult,” Schneider said. “But I noticed more, the older I got that I would eat when no one was looking. I was told in my early teen years that if I didn’t start losing some weight and such that I wouldn’t be able to find any clothes that fit.”

A lack of physical activity combined with an unhealthy diet can also quickly lead to a child becoming obese. Children are getting less exercise than they ever have before.

“I didn’t go outside and play like most children because I would get very hot and quickly be tired,” Schneider said.

The family children are raised in also plays a large part in whether they are obese. Parents have full control of what groceries they buy.

“My mother and grandmother always cooked with a lot of shortening or lard and had a lot of carbohydrates at every meal – let alone desserts,” said Cindy Abner, a woman fighting obesity. “I was raised that you had to clean your plate before you could leave the table. I have a problem to this day about . thinking that I had to clean my plate, even if I feel overly full.”

Television and video games have impacted child obesity as well, taking up time children used to spend playing outside or engaging in physical activity.

Advertisements have been shown to heavily affect a child’s nutrition knowledge and desire for high caloric and fatty foods. More than half of television advertisements directed at children promote unhealthy foods, according to the National Institute of Medicine.

The fast-paced society that has established itself today also promotes trips to fast food restaurants and pre-cooked meals that lack the proper nutrients found in fresh food.

“The bad sorts of things that people eat are reinforced by advertising,” said Robert Reber, associate professor of nutrition at the University. “It’s interesting to see how fast food establishments make people think it’s OK to have very big servings . god knows we don’t need another 700 calorie sandwich, but they keep coming out with them.”

Socioeconomic status may also play a role. Low-income families may find that their children are overweight or obese due to the cost of fresh food. Studies done by Mayo Clinic show that the cost of healthy food has increased, while the cost of unhealthy food has remained consistently lower.

The early onset of childhood obesity also has major health concerns and negative effects associated with it. Children who are obese are far more likely to be the subject of cruel jokes and are likely to develop self-esteem issues or become depressed.

“I would go through stages where I was very happy-go-lucky,” Schneider said. “Then I would also go through stages where I would get very depressed and feel very alone, as if there was no one to turn to, and no one to care.”

Childhood obesity also gives a young child an early start on health problems that don’t normally develop in a person until they are older.

Schneider suffered a stroke when she was 22-years-old due to a combination of her weight and a heart defect she was born with.

“Kids today are having a high incidence of getting diagnosed with Type II diabetes and high cholesterol when they are 10 years old or 12 years old,” said Leigh Hunt, registered dietician at IPower.

There are several options for the treatment and future prevention of childhood obesity, including that children have at least 60 minutes of physical activity, according to the Surgeon General.

“The kids need to be more active,” Hunt said. “We have to get our kids to start moving,”

The good news about obesity is that it is highly preventable.

“You have to address lifestyle,” said J. Lee Beverly, associate professor of nutrition at the University. “You have to promote physical activity among kids . and educate both the kids and the parents.”

The precautions against obesity are actually quite simple. The lifestyle change and the decision to do something is what many consider hard.

“We need to just go back to the advice of our grandmothers and grandfathers,” said Karen Chapman-Novakofski, associate professor of Nutrition at the University. “We need moderation in food. We need to eat a variety of food and stay active.”