Q Can you spread the word that September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month? — CD, Greenville
A I am happy to remind everyone we all have a role in promoting healthy growth and preventing overweight and obesity in our children. About 1 in 5 children in the United States, and we believe more in eastern North Carolina, have obesity.
I was at the beach and found myself thinking back to 1983, our first beach season in eastern North Carolina and about the children I observed running on the sand, riding the waves, and playing beach games with great energy. Most of them were at a healthy weight.
This year I saw too many children huffing and puffing while trying to play beach games or even worse, just sitting in the sand unable to play because they were too big for their age. Childhood Obesity Awareness Month is a chance to learn more about this serious health condition.
Before I retired, I spent more than 10 years working with the great doctors, registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs), family medical therapy specialists and others at ECU’s Pediatric Healthy Weight Research and Treatment Center. We collaborated with other dedicated professionals with Pitt County Schools and the Health Department, other child health advocates, and the leadership at Vidant Health to address the rising rate of childhood obesity in our community.
It became quite clear to all of us that there is no simple solution to this situation. Childhood rates went down a bit with these efforts, but like other aspects of our lives, COVID-19 has made an impact, stalling the progress. It is imperative that we focus on protecting our children from the virus, but we can’t ignore that children with obesity are at higher risk than their healthy weight peers for a chronic health conditions like asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, type 2 diabetes — and probably viral infections.
Attention to preventing obesity can’t wait. Experts say many factors can impact childhood obesity, including genetics, metabolism, eating and physical activity behaviors. The environment at home and school, social factors, and the community will ensure children have the chance to be at a healthy weight.
Some interventions take resources like preserving green spaces and maintaining parks to ensure children have places to be physically active. As taxpayers, advocate for them. Other strategies that work take little or no money:
- Parents/caregivers can make sure the kids don’t spend too much time being inactive and get enough sleep. Sleep helps improve attention and reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and even obesity later in life. Get children to bed at the same time each day, including the weekends; remove electronic devices from the bedroom; and keep their bedroom dark and cool so they can get at least eight hours of sleep.
- Monitor your children’s s growth using the CDC’s Child and Teen BMI Calculator (www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/bmi/calculator.html.) If a child doesn’t follow the curve, take him/her to the family doctor or pediatrician. If the doctor refers your child to a RDN to personalize their eating plan, please make sure you keep the appointment.
- Help the children learn to enjoy eating fruits and vegetables at meals and for snacks — first by being a role model. It may take multiple exposures to a new food for kids to learn to eat it. Continue to offer a bite, even if the child makes a face the first, second or 10th time. If you are on a budget or need the convenience of canned, frozen, or dried fruits and vegetables serve those but avoid those with lots of added sugar or fat. Make sure safe drinking water is always available as a no-calorie alternative to sugary drinks and limit juice intake.
- Children should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. If they don’t get at least 30 minutes at school or day care, let the leadership of the school know this is important to you. Regular physical activity can have immediate health benefits like better sleep, better academic achievement and reduced feelings of anxiety and stress.
It is sad, but true, children with obesity can be bullied and teased and are more likely to suffer from social isolation, depression and lower self-esteem. Teach your children to respect all children regardless of size. Every adult who has tried to lose weight knows how difficult it can be.
In September, think how about how you can help prevent our children from developing obesity. Many of my adult patients with obesity, diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease have told me, “I don’t want my kids to suffer these health conditions.” Prevention is key.
Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an affiliate professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU.