The beginning of the school year is the perfect time to bring attention to the prevalence of childhood obesity as you evaluate and implement new routines for your kids…and, September just happens to be National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Despite a significant decline in obesity among preschool-aged children (2-5) from 2003-2004 to 2011-2012 (13.9% to 8.4%), the fact still remains that children and adolescents as a whole are too heavy. Approximately 17% (1 in 5 = 12.7 million) of U.S. children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese; more than one-third (33 %) of U.S. children are overweight or obese. As age increases, so does the obesity rate: 17.7% of 6- to 11-year-olds and 20.5% of 12- to 19-year-olds.
There is no single solution to the obesity epidemic, just as there is no single reason for it. It is incredibly complex with individual, social, economic and environmental factors to consider. The onus cannot be on any one person or group to solve the issue, even if we’re talking about one child. It takes a village. Therefore, schools, health professionals, communities and families need to work together to create opportunities for kids to eat healthier and get more active—which we all know is much more complicated than it sounds.
Many districts have already complied with federal regulations (which finally became law in July) to revise and create comprehensive wellness policies with the goal of shifting their buildings to healthier cultures; however, writing the policy and implementing it require different resources. Districts often start out with good intentions, but may not have the capacity or infrastructure to consistently implement policy requirements, especially when policy items are controversial. Staff often have differing opinions about the importance of recess and physical education classes which sends confusing messages to students. For those districts, however, that are successful in providing their students with healthier environments, all that hard work might be negated if parents’ values contradict those of the schools. Food service staff, by law, prepare nutritionally sound breakfasts and lunches, but they are not the “food police.” They can require your child put particular food items on his/her tray in order to make it a reimbursable meal, but they cannot force your child to actually eat those items. Medical providers can provide parents with strategies to reduce weight during child wellness visits, but they can’t follow them home to make sure that advice is consistently acted on. Municipalities can design and offer recreational programming and other resources, but they cannot force kids to take advantage of them. And, if mom and dad are modeling healthy choices at home with an emphasis on moderation, but their child is offered and consumes sugary birthday treats on a regular basis, their efforts are thwarted. Or, maybe parents cannot easily provide more nutritious meals because they lack transportation and too often need to rely on convenience stores and their empty-calorie items laden with sugar, fat and salt. Children need consistent messages and resources on a regular basis, regardless of where they are, to reinforce the importance of developing healthy lifestyles.
This epidemic is not new news to anyone. But, it’s easy to get lose sight of the end goal when we have so many conflicting priorities. So, the month of September is about reminding and educating stakeholders of this crisis which puts kids at risk for: high blood pressure and high cholesterol; insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes; asthma, sleep apnea, and other breathing problems; joint aches and pains; and heartburn….as well as bullying.
So, I’ll close with tips for parents and communities as a whole from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address the childhood obesity crisis:
- To help ensure that children have a healthy weight, energy balance is important. To achieve this balance, parents can make sure children get adequate sleep, follow recommendations on daily screen time, take part in regular physical activity, and eat the right amount of calories.
- Parents can substitute higher nutrient, lower calorie foods such as fruit and vegetables in place of foods with higher-calorie ingredients, such as added sugars and solid fats.
- Parents can serve children fruit and vegetables at meals and as snacks.
- Parents can ensure access to water as a no-calorie alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Parents can help children get the recommended amount of physical activity each day by encouraging them to participate in activities that are age-appropriate and enjoyable. There are a variety of age appropriate aerobic, muscle and bone-strengthening activities that kids can do.
- The federal government is currently helping low-income families get affordable, nutritious foods through programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP).
- State and local stakeholders including health departments, businesses, and community groups can help make it easier for families with children to find low-cost physical activity opportunities and buy healthy, affordable foods in their neighborhoods and community settings.
- Schools can help by consistently implementing their wellness policies and practices that support healthy eating, regular physical activity, and by providing opportunities for students to learn about and practice these behaviors.
- With more than 60% of US children younger than age 6 participating in some form of child care on a weekly basis, parents can engage with child care providers to support healthy habits at home and in child care settings.