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America's Growing Belt Size - Part 2: America's Youth

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Part 1 of this two-part series of posts reviewed the latest statistics on adult overweight and obesity data. Today's post looks at an even more concerning issue - America's youth. Again, these statistics come from the recent report F as in Fat by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Some experts are saying that today's youth may be the first generation that will have a shorter life span than their parents. Life span is not the only concern, as the quality of life for those who are overweight can be significantly different than the quality of life for those of normal/healthy weight. Some solutions to the problem are within our immediate control. Others may require new policies and program. One of the immediate solutions is to look at the nutritional and exercise habits of young people. However, in some circumstances, such as when there are metabolic issues, losing weight requires more than a change in diet and activity level. In these cases, it can be beneficial to consult with nutritional experts such as Naturopathic Physicians, Registered Dietitians, and other Holistic Health Counselors.

The following are some of the statistics related to the obesity issue of the youth in our population:

  • 30 percent of children, ages 10 to 17 are obese or overweight in 30 states
  • Less than one-third of children ages 6 to 17 engage in vigorous activity
  • About 176,500 men and women under the age of 20 have diabetes, and two million have pre-diabetes
  • Roughly 60 percent of obese children have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease

 Elementary schools and high schools are often blamed for the weight gains in children. Reduced physical education time and foods with questionable nutrition content are common concerns. Fast food and vending machines are found in many schools, and the menus themselves are often not ideal. Some school systems are taking strides to provide healthier food options. Others are even beginning to partner with local farms to provide farm-fresh foods, locally grown.

Making changes to diet and exercise in the school system is a good step in the right direction. However, the most important place change must take place is at home. An interesting finding, discussed in the report, was that children actually gain more weight during the summer vacation than they gain during the school year. The weight gain is not due to growth spurts, but to increased body fat. During the summer months, more processed foods are available, and activity levels actually go down. Computer, video game and television time has replaced much of the time spent playing as past generations did. It is critical to keep kids active during the summer months, and make sure that healthy, whole food is available, especially if they are home alone.

The health-related issues associated with being overweight as a young child are concerning. However, the impact of being overweight on a psychological level can be even more of an issue for young people (I've been there myself).  Kids are known to be hard on their peers, and even more so on their peers who are overweight. Some children can be affected long-term by what their peers say to them during their early years.

Much of the information above is related to overweight and obesity, but being at a normal weight does not always mean someone is healthy. When children are at a normal weight, it can be easier to worry less about what they are eating. There is much more that a poor diet can cause than weight gain. It is important to be aware of nutritional choices for all young people. Kids usually prefer processed foods and candy if they have the option to eat it. Young people don't have the knowledge or concern adults do about the food choices they make, so adults must help them by not buying certain foods, or avoiding certain fast food restaurants. As an example, in the school district where we live, chocolate milk is one of the milk options kids have. Chocolate milk overwhelmingly chosen over other options, and contains much more sugar. One day of chocolate milk is not going to be a problem, but when it is the choice every day through a school year, that extra sugar adds up, especially when another choice some kids can make is whether to have a cookie or fruit with their meal. You can't help but question whether the chocolate milk or a cookie is really even necessary in a school lunch.

These are just some brief thoughts about a very large issue. Each of us has the opportunity to be a positive influence for children we know, family or friends. Those of us that buy the food each week have a responsibility to make the right choice, even though it may not be the favorite choice of our children.

Go to: America's Growing Beltsize, Part 1 - Adults

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