The Epidemic That’s Putting Kids at Risk

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on January 18, 2012 · 0 comments

As parents our primary job is to protect our children and help them grow into productive adults. But we are failing at the job. If we do not stem the tide of childhood obesity and help children eat better and be more active, we could be a generation of parents who outlive our children.

The incidence of type 2 diabetes has been described as an epidemic in the pediatric population. In the past, type 2 diabetes was rare in children. Today the prevalence is increasing dramatically and if this increase cannot be reversed we will be facing major health challenges as young adults experience kidney failure, high blood pressure, heart disease, blindness, pregnancy loss, possible amputation, and death due to complications of diabetes. Most children with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese at the time of diagnosis and the course of the disease progresses more quickly than is typically seen in older adults. Lifestyle interventions are the most effective way to prevent or delay type 2 diabetes in adults and it is believed that the same is true for children. Achieving a healthy weight, remaining active, and eating well would go a long way to controlling this problem.

Results from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) Growth and Health Study suggest that girls as young as 9, who are overweight, are at risk for  heart disease. Their risk was both short term and long term, meaning the problems normally associated with heart disease such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels were more likely to show up in childhood and become serious in adulthood. Girls who are overweight in childhood are 11 to 30 times more likely to be obese as young adults. This study’s findings suggest that it is important to help young children adopt healthy lifestyle habits to prevent weight gain.

In the on-going Strong Heart Study, which is looking at cardiovascular risk factors for disease in 13 American-Indian communities, the prevalence of hypertension and prehypertension in young adults showed heart muscle changes which can lead to blood vessel complications and heart failure. The subjects were often obese and had diabetes. Though the population was limited to American Indians, studies of adults comparing hypertension in blacks, whites, and American Indians have shown that the Indian population is not unique. What happens to these young adults after a childhood of poor eating, being overweight, and having diabetes, may be a preview of what other groups may experience if childhood obesity and inactivity is left unchecked.

One would assume that parents control what kids normally eat, but study after study is showing that the reverse is true. In families with young and adolescent children the entire family eats more total fat and more saturated fats. Total fat consumption is highest among teenagers, and the intake of fast food is high in children, teenagers and young adults.

What the kids want, the “nag-factor”, seems to drive choices for the entire household. Almost 50% of parents surveyed in a national study said that meat, grocery, and restaurant choices were influenced by their children. Homes with kids have more salty snacks, pizza, cheese, beef, ice cream, cakes, cookies, bacon, sausage, and peanuts. New parents often work very hard at feeding their infants well but the improvements are rarely sustained into childhood.

Project EAT: Eating Among Teens, found that 51% of families surveyed reported eating quick service meals as a family meal at least 1 to 2 times a week; 7% had quick service meals 3 to 4 times a week. The more fast food meals a family ate, the less fruits and vegetables they consumed and the more likely they were to be overweight. For time-crunched families there are fast alternatives to fast foods. Simply coupling the fast food hamburger with bagged salad and low calorie dressing plus a glass of nonfat chocolate milk is a vast improvement over burger, fries and a milkshake.

In Add Health, a school-based study of children 11 to 21, the incidence of overweight climbed from 29% to 47% over the 10 years the children were followed. Younger children reported eating breakfast 4 to 5 days a week, down to 3 times a week by late adolescence. Those who skipped breakfast were more likely to overeat later in the day and choose more calorie dense, less nutritious foods. Breakfast foods – juice, cereal and milk – offer nutrients that are rarely made up later in the day. Eating breakfast is a positive health habit that should be stressed. A yogurt, granola bar, and container of orange juice can be eaten on the run and beats a breakfast burrito and a soda.

Good health habits are an investment in your child’s future. These investments will help them grow into disease-free adults who enjoy a long and healthy life. Perhaps when it comes to food choices we need to take a cue from the old anti-drug campaign and “just say no” when kids kick the “nag effect” into high gear.

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