Daily activity, nutritious food help combat childhood obesity

Image courtesy www.mypyramid.gov




First ladies always have their issue. For Nancy Reagan, it was “Just Say No” to drug use; Barbara and Laura Bush promoted childhood literacy and education; and Hillary Clinton stood at the forefront of healthcare reform.

In early February, Michelle Obama launched what is to become her major initiative during her husband’s term as president: a campaign against childhood obesity.

While this may seem an unusual topic for a woman with two healthy daughters, recent research reveals an explosion in rates of childhood obesity that would make it a national concern for any administration. According to a memorandum signed by President Obama, one-third of children are overweight or obese.

Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examinations Survey show that childhood obesity has doubled among children and tripled among adolescents since the late 1970s. In fact, obesity — defined as a body-mass index or BMI of 30 or greater — is now present among 17.6 percent of adolescents age 12 to 19.

The first lady’s initiative calls for the establishment of a task force on childhood obesity that will develop a “plan to solve the problem of obesity among our Nation’s children within a generation.” The task force’s goals include ensuring access to healthy food, increasing time allotted for physical activity in schools and making schools provide healthier meals to students.

Although many factors such as genetics and economic status play a role in obesity’s prevalence, quite a few other variables factor into a chubbier childhood.

“For kids who have parents who are normal [in weight], they have a 7 percent chance of obesity,” said Hannah Schofield, a post-doctoral fellow at Allegheny General Hospital and a director in the hospital’s KidShape program.When one parent is obese, the child has a 40 percent likelihood; and when two parents are obese, an 80 percent likelihood of obesity.”

KidShape, a national program to fight childhood obesity, offers 9-week classes for children ages 6 to 14 who must attend each class with one parent. Over the course of the program, which meets one night per week, a dietician formulates a recommended diet for each individual child; the children do 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise with a local gym teacher; and each parent and child receive counseling in mental health and self-control issues.

Schofield said this three-pronged approach helps parents and children transition to a healthier lifestyle. Since nearly a third of the children eat fast food once a day, because of busy parental schedules, Schofield said counseling aides parents in making better nutritional decision for their kids.  

“One of the best ways to treat childhood obesity is to have the parents involved,” Schofield said. “It’s really a family lifestyle change — how much time are they spending eating and watching TV rather than staying active.”

Between 85 and 90 percent of kids lose weight during the program, and during later follow-up interviews, Schofield said nearly 75 percent keep the weight off.

But children are also heavily affected by their geographical environment.

Kristen Kurlander, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s public policy and architecture schools, has performed research on the effect of nearby parks and proximity of fast food outlets to a child’s chance of obesity.

Last year, Kurlander developed a Global Information System, basically a map overlaid with data points, of Allegheny County that pin-pointed every single park and fast food joint. Using the household locations of patients in Children’s Hospital’s Weight Management and Wellness Center, Kurland compared their proximity to parks and fast food joints alongside their BMI history over a five-year period.

Of those with a BMI decrease, 44 percent live within 1,200 feet of a park, while only 17 percent of those with a BMI increase live within that same proximity, Kurland said. “Kids who improved lived slightly farther away from the nearest fast food establishment.”

“If you look at places like the Northside that are fairly walkable,” they allow more active lifestyles, she said, since many kids growing up in the suburbs are driven around rather than walking.

Kurlander has shared her research with Pittsburgh’s city planning department, and she thinks urban leaders are beginning to accept the relationship between parks and a healthy population.

For the children’s sake, it would be positive if her hunch is right.

Obesity has been linked to shorter life spans. And what were once only adult diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, are now more common in obese children.