Kids and weight issues: what can we do?
Despite the fact that Henry eats only American cheese and yogurt, his weight remains average—neither too high nor too low. This is actually kind of amazing considering how much yogurt he can consume in one sitting, and how much he prefers playing with Legos to, say, moving. My friend Jennifer’s daughter, on the other hand, has similar food issues, and her weight, according to her pediatrician, is too high. With a BMI in the overweight range, she’s at risk for future obesity and all the health problems that accompany the condition—not to mention the social stigma of being overweight. Jennifer doesn’t know what to do. Unlike Henry, her daughter is already quite active; besides all the hours she spends in the playground, she’s usually enrolled in either a dance or a gym class. The only other piece of the puzzle is her diet, but that’s already a thorny issue. Is it a good idea to tell her daughter to watch what she eats—especially when she already eats so little?
Picky eaters are hardly the only kids facing weight issues these days. More children are dealing with weight problems, and they’re dealing with them at younger and younger ages. 14% of children ages 2-5 are overweight—a percentage that has doubled over the last two decades. More children over the age of 5 are dealing with what were once believed to be adult consequences of obesity, such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. One ailment increasingly being seen in children is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a life-threatening ailment that can lead to liver failure or cancer. Only a couple of decades ago the disease was almost never seen in children; fatty liver disease was associated with alcoholism almost exclusively, to the point where patients who claimed not to drink were assumed to be in denial. It’s predicted that by 2020, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease will be the number one cause of liver transplants.
But why are so many children obese? A recent study has linked childhood obesity with prenatal exposure to pesticides. The study measured umbilical-cord levels of hexachlorobenzene (HCB), a fungicide, and found that those babies who had the highest levels of HCB were more than twice as likely to suffer from obesity later in their childhood. This research is fairly preliminary, however, and doesn’t take other factors, such as activity level, into account.
Speaking of activity levels, yet another study concluded that children typically get much less exercise than parents think. Parents who were questioned on their children’s exercise habits estimated that they were active for over two hours a day, but the real number was somewhere around twenty minutes. It’s not hard to see how our perception of our kid’s activity levels can differ from reality; after all, we don’t know how active they are at school, and they certainly wear us out.
Diet, of course, plays a huge role. But many parents simply don’t know enough or don’t have the resources to provide their children with enough nutritious, low-fat choices. (And school lunches are not, typically, the most stellar culinary offerings.) And if you emphasize diet and weight control with your young child, are you risking creating an eating disorder? This is the concern of some nutritionists, who believe that overemphasizing weight loss with your child is a mistake.
All of which leaves parents, more or less, at a loss as to what to do. The advice experts give is the standard stuff: make sure your children get plenty of exercise and encourage them to eat right. Easier said than done, and with most parents working full-time, it’s hard to keep track of what your kids are eating and how active they are.
So, my readers: what’s your take on childhood weight gain? Do you face this problem with your children, and if so, how are you dealing with it?