Obesity weighs on kids’ health

FAIRMONT – Current school-aged children are the first generation in 200 years expected to have shorter life spans than their parents, and obesity is a major factor.

This isn’t news. Childhood obesity has been a big player in the policy changes to the National School Lunch program. Anti-obesity advertising campaigns have taken the spotlight, as adults argue about whether pointing out little Jimmy is overweight will help him lose weight or scar him for life. Even fast-food restaurants have begun to offer healthier alternatives to french fries and burgers.

But children continue to get bigger and face health risks more frequently associated with adults, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart problems.

Vickie Parsons, certified nurse practitioner specializing in pediatric and adolescent medicine for Mayo Clinic Health System, presented a seminar on the topic of childhood obesity Thursday in Fairmont.

As she looked around the nearly empty room, she acknowledged the difficulty in discussing the issue.

“There is so much judgment in weight issues,” she said, noting she has seen low turnouts at similar seminars in other communities.

Those in attendance Thursday included school personnel from two local districts, one great-grandmother and some hospital staff.

Cindy Martens, a preschool teacher at Fairmont Elementary, said she came to the seminar because she has noticed some children are heavier than they used to be.

She isn’t the only one who has noticed.

In the past 30 years, obesity has doubled in young children, and tripled in adolescents. The numbers hold across gender, race and socioeconomic groups.

Parsons recommends simple steps for helping young people understand healthy eating, steps many people know but aren’t practicing.

The biggest help, she says, is limiting soda and juice, and encouraging kids to drink water.

“I tell parents, feed them the fruit and give them a glass of water. An orange and a glass of water is much better than a glass of orange juice.”

Families sometimes balk at the idea of getting their young child to eat fruits and veggies, but Parsons holds firm. If there isn’t something else [like chips] there, they won’t eat it.

Other ways to helps kids develop good eating habits include not using food as reward or punishment, sitting down for meals together, and buying fruit and veggies.

She stresses limiting screen time to two hours per day, maximum, and getting kids to move.

“Ten years ago, they were telling us that to have a smart kid, you needed them to listen to a certain kind of music and hear other languages. Baby Einstein stuff,” she said. “But science is telling us moving does more for the brain than a kid knowing three languages at 3 years old.”

But even with all the news on the topic, how should a parent know if his or her child is obese? By using a pediatric BMI score.

For adults, the score is a number related to height and weight. For children, it is a percentile range. A score of 50th percentile means half of children are lower in height or weight and 50 percent are higher.

“This is something you don’t want to get 100 percent on,” Parsons said.

Parsons said children go through stages where they seem pudgier than other times, so it is something to watch over time.

Children facing obesity have negative health effects, such as increased depression, lower self-esteem, higher rates of heart disease, sleep apnea and joint problems.

She said putting a child on a strict diet isn’t the way to correct the problem, however. Part of her talks with parents now include a description of “natural play,” which she describes as telling parents their children should go out and get dirty. They should climb trees and run around outside.

She said obese children under 7 years old should not be encouraged to lose weight, but to maintain their weight so they can grow into it. Over 7 years old, children should lose weight slowly – only 1 pound per month or so.

“It is slow,” she acknowledged.

Healthful eating and activity have become the buzzwords in children’s health, and for a reason.

“We need to think of food as our best medicine,” Parsons said.