Childhood obesity has become a national epidemic. Many parents don’t think about using the word “epidemic” in this context because obesity differs from other childhood diseases, such as measles, chicken pox, and whooping cough. There’s no cough, no rash, no fever—yet obesity is a silent killer. It continues to attack and compromise the health of our children.
Today, nearly one in three children ages 6 to 11 are either overweight or obese—a rate that has soared in New Jersey as well as the entire country in the past four decades.
Why Is This a Problem?
Obesity puts our children at great risk for developing serious “adult” diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea, and strokes. And, of course, it is no surprise that obesity and being fat causes kids to develop psychological problems that affect them both academically and socially, in a range from embarrassment to low self-esteem. Being a contestant on “The Biggest Loser” is not the future we plan for our children.
Here are the Facts:
- The current generation of children may be the first generation in American history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents: age 55.
- 20 percent of preschool children are obese, and 30 percent of all children are obese.
- By the time an obese child turns 6, his chance of becoming an obese adult is greater than 50 percent.
- Excess body fat accumulated as a child persists into adulthood.
- Most people’s eating habits and traits are established by the age of 12.
- Diet-related diseases have become the biggest killers in the United States today.
How Did this Happen?
The bad news is that there’s no vaccination, no pill, no silver bullet to stop the spread of the disease. So what can parents do to prevent obesity and protect their children?
The American Academy of Pediatrics, and other medical and health-care professionals, have uncovered some alarming statistics that help explain how the epidemic has evolved:
- Drinking one Coke a day for a year results in the consumption of 32 pounds of sugar; this can cause a person to gain 18 pounds in a year.
- Half the calories consumed by 6- to 11-year-olds come from sweets, carbonated drinks, and fried and junk food.
- A large percentage of food sold in supermarkets is processed. In other words, it’s food with added flavors, sugars, fats, and chemicals, designed to make a person chew less, eat faster, and eat more.
- Fast food outlets spend $3 billion in television ads targeted to children, encouraging them to consume food and drinks that are high in fat, sugar, and salt because they are cheap to produce and are profitable.
- Artificial sweeteners in diet sodas have negative effects: they are 180 times sweeter than sugar and increase the craving for sweet and high-calorie foods.
- Only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools offer daily physical education or exercise programs, due to cost-cutting and the focus on academics
Why is this happening now? Many busy working parents know fast food is cheap, easily available, and convenient. Too few of them know much about nutrition, or know how to read confusing food labels. Packaging and marketing sometimes make it hard to understand what foods are unhealthful, with high sugar and fat content—but zero nutritional value
In addition, parents don’t have time to teach children how to cook at home. Many children don’t know where food comes from, and don’t recognize—or have never tasted—fresh fruits and vegetables. Schools are falling down on the job of teaching kids about healthy foods
So fast food outlets and snack manufacturers have stepped in to fill the void. They spend $3 billion in television commercials targeted at children, advertising cheap-to-produce processed foods. They offer prizes and incentives for buying their products, too
At school, food choices are often determined by school business managers who see processed finger foods (pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, and fries) as convenient ways to keep food budgets low, without taking the nutritional needs of children into account.
Too many children stay indoors, watching TV or playing computer games, and as a result become sluggish couch potatoes when they should be playing outdoors and getting physical exercise.
What Can You Do?
- Obesity is preventable. If you’re a parent with concerns about your child’s weight and health, look for information, activities, and programs that can help, and talk to your pediatrician about the devastating effects of childhood and adolescent obesity.
- Here in New Jersey there are many ways physicians, hospitals, scientists, universities, museums, and health professionals hope to inform and help parents curb the epidemic of obesity in the Garden State. In addition, here’s what you can do at home:
- Become aware of what you and your children eat. Learn how to create a delicious and nutritious meal. Enlist your children to help with cooking so they can learn how to feed themselves with healthy foods.
- Be an eating and exercise role model for your kids, or act as a diet buddy.
- Teach your children about food sources. Find fun ways to get the message across: make a game of naming and tasting fresh fruits and veggies; visit a farm to see food at its source; go to a farmer’s market to see food that’s just been harvested; plant a garden to grow your own vegetables.
- Look at diary product labels in the supermarket to see how much sugar is in ‘”low-fat” milk, ice cream, and yogurt. This may surprise you. Learn how to read all food labels, and pay attention to chemicals, fat, salt, and sugar content.
- Talk to your kids about how added salt, sugar, and fat hijack our brains and stimulate us to eat more (and gain weight).
- Encourage your kids to exercise, outdoors playing sports and indoors playing with Wii exercise and dance games. Take the stairs instead of the elevator; take family hikes or walks whenever you can.
Fit in NJ
An exciting, interactive, and easy-to-understand program designed to educate parents and kids about obesity is called “Generation Fit,” an exhibit scheduled to open at the Newark Museum on Nov. 26. Kids and their parents can have fun discovering new things about food, doing calorie-burning physical exercises, and learning how to eat healthily while still honoring their own ethnic food traditions. The multi-dimensional project includes interactive exhibits, family health festivals, and remote learning opportunities designed to provide families and teachers with awareness and information about the causes and prevention of obesity.
The Museum is partnering with Newark’s Beth Israel Hospital, The University of Medicine and Dentistry (UMDNJ), and Liberty Science Center for this project.
Some other programs in New Jersey that provide information and resources to families include the Kid-FIT program at The Goryeb Children’s Hospital at Morristown Medical Center, and Rutgers’ Get Moving–Get Healthy New Jersey campaign.
A National Goal
New Jersey isn’t the only state, of course, that is dealing with obesity. Responding to this issue as a national problem, First Lady Michelle Obama has created a Let’s Move initiative that identifies the four goals necessary for children’s wellness: more nutrition information, increased physical activity, easier access to healthful foods, and personal parental responsibility.
The goal isn’t about losing inches or pounds, according to Mrs. Obama. Rather, it’s about how our kids feel—and how they feel about themselves.
“It wasn’t long ago,” the First Lady says, “that I was a working mom, struggling to balance meetings and deadlines with soccer and ballet. And there were some nights when everyone was tired and hungry, and we just went to the drive-thru because it was quick and cheap; or we went with one of the less-healthy microwave options, because it was easy. Then one day, my pediatrician pulled me aside and told me that I might want to think about doing things a little bit differently to avoid putting my girls’ health at risk. And that awareness has made all the difference!
Chew on This
Here are some local NJ and online resources to help parents understand how eating well and exercising can lead to better health:
- Alliance for Healthier Generation
- Fat, Salt and Sugar Alter Brain Chemistry, Make Us Eat Junk Food, by David Kessler, MD (former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration)
- Healthier Kids, Brighter Futures
- Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize wish video: Teach Every Child About Food
- Kid-FIT Health Management Program at Goryeb Children’s Hospital at Morristown Medical Center
- New Jersey Obesity Group at Rutgers
- NJ Farm to School program
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity
- Rutgers’ Get Moving-Get Healthy NJ
- State of New Jersey Office of Nutrition and Fitness
Arlene S. Chasek is the Founding Director of the Rutgers Center for Family Involvement in Schools, developer of nationally recognized family programs in math, science, tools & technology, and arts & creativity.