Virginia leaders believe they have a plan that will begin to deal with the issue of childhood obesity. They are in the process of developing legislation to control the amount and types of foods that kids eat in Commonwealth schools.
Childhood obesity continues to rise at an alarming rate, not only in the state of Virginia, but throughout America. In fact, childhood obesity is so common that it is now considered to be of epidemic proportions. One in every six children between the age of 6 and 19 is now overweight, making obesity twice as common among today’s children as it was a mere 20 years ago. Furthermore, the rise in childhood obesity appears to directly parallel a severe increase in medical problems for children such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension. Obesity also causes orthopedic problems by causing stress in the joints of the lower limbs which may lead to other health issues like bowing of the legs, tibial torsion, or slipped capital famoral epiphysis.
Obesity is defined as having too much body fat. A child is considered obese if his or her weight is more than 20% above the ideal weight for a boy or girl in the same age group and in the same height range. Therefore, to determine obesity, doctors typically take certain measurements, beginning with a comparison of the child’s height and weight, comparing it against a typical growth chart for children of the same age and sex. Second, doctors check the child’s skin fold thickness. This is generally done on the back of the upper arm, with a caliper that pinches the skin and fat together. However, the best measurement to take is called the body mass index. If the body mass index is above the 85th percentile for the child’s age and sex, they are considered to be overweight and if it is above the 95th percentile, the child is considered to be obese.
A lot of people assume that anyone who is obese – – including children – – are simply guilty of gluttony. Oddly enough, that is probably not the case. Studies indicate that there often isn’t a significant difference in the amount of food eaten between obese and non-obese children. However, they do note that obese children tend to eat higher calorie and/or higher fat foods. There are, in fact, many different factors that contribute to a child’s obesity. While some of these situations can be easily changed, some of them cannot. Situations that may be easily changed include:
- Sedentary behavior.
- Socioeconomic status;
- Eating habits; and
If you think about it for a moment, it is relatively clear that today’s children do not get as much physical activity as the previous generation or the generations before that. Not only is physical education sadly lacking in many of today’s schools, but children are also less active at home. Instead of going outside to play with their friends, today’s children often park themselves in front of the computer, television, or video game.
While we do not always think of socioeconomic status as something that should effect a child’s weight, the fact is that it very well may. I’ll use myself as an example. When I was little my father always drank his paycheck usually within about two day’s time. Consequently, mom was left with very little money with which to purchase nutritious food. Consequently, we ate a lot of beans, potatoes, and cornbread – – high starch items – – because they were inexpensive. Also, we had a neighbor who sold candy for vending machines. He, knowing our situation, would sell candy bars to us 10 for $.25. While obviously there was little nutritious value to candy bars, they helped to fill our stomachs and kept us from going to bed hungry every night. Unfortunately, the same is still true today. Families with lower incomes are often dependent upon inexpensive foods that will at least keep their children from starving.
I think we can all agree that America’s eating habits, as a whole, are deplorable. Over the last few decades we have been forced to fit more and more into our everyday schedules. Combine this with the fact that in a lot of families, both parents must work, and it is easy to see how fast food has taken over American dinner tables. While a few companies have made an attempt to make healthier fast foods, Americans don’t always take the time to figure out the difference; opting instead to just grab anything to curb hunger.
Although some people “pooh pooh” the modifiable cause of environment, it does play a factor. The average American is exposed to an incredible amount of food advertisements on any given day. Most of these promote high calorie content items that have no real nutrition value but are supposed to make us feel better.
The two factors that often lead to obesity that cannot be modified include:
- Genetics; and
- Underlying medical condition.
Research indicates that obesity has been found much more common in children of obese and overweight parents. Family history of obesity, therefore, can have a major impact on a child’s possibility of obesity through no fault of his or her own. Additionally, although it happens rarely, obesity can be caused by an underlying medical condition. Such illnesses include endocrine problems as well as genetic syndromes.
Prevention of childhood obesity is a complex issue that must involve not only the child and his or her parents, but may also require physician assistance. Prevention must be approached as an entire ” family” problem. Everyone in the family must be committed to the solution. It is impossible to expect a child to eat differently than his or her parents or siblings. The child will view such actions as punishment for behaviors that they do not necessarily view as traditionally bad. Family mealtime should be relaxed. Everyone should be encouraged to eat slowly; allowing food to metabolize properly. Families that do not sit down and eat together tend to consume more fried foods, sugary items, and sodas instead of the healthier fruits and vegetables. Additionally, parents must serve as role models for their children since they tend to often mirror their parent’s actions. If their parents eat poorly, so will they. If they see that a healthy diet is important to their parents, they will view it as more important to them. Parents who exercise regularly also indirectly encourage their children to do the same. Whenever possible, parents should consider exercise activities that can involve the entire family. For example: My daughter and son-in-law have always walked with my grandson. When he was smaller, they pushed him in a stroller. Now that he is older, he likes that he can walk along with them.
Because obesity develops over a long period of time, rather than overnight, its prevention must be approached the same way. It cannot be solved overnight. Anticipating immediate, dramatic change is simply unrealistic so achievable goals must be established at the outset. Parents must set short-term, quickly achievable goals for both diet and exercise. Then, as the child experiences success, long-term goals can be added. Praise is a crucial part of the over all process. Parents must continue to encourage and support their children in order to prevent them from giving up. It may also be necessary to obtain physicians assistance with obesity prevention. They can help children recognize the important signs of hunger and fullness. This is important so those children will learn when to stop eating. Physicians can be helpful in getting children to identify emotions and situations that may serve as a trigger for overeating. Finally, physicians can help families establish a healthy eating plan, which includes both meals and snacks as well as an exercise program that suited specifically to each individual family’s need.
Whenever possible, parents should include their children’s schools in obesity prevention. While parents may be the most important role models their children have, the fact remains that children spend a large portion of their day with teachers and school friends. If these important people do not reflect the same concerns about health and activity, then children will get confused with the mixed messages being sent. With many school programs already cutting or eliminating physical education altogether, one major solution to childhood obesity has already been lost. Therefore, every possible effort must be made to keep lunch programs from conflicting with standard healthy eating habits.
This is where children in the Commonwealth of Virginia are lucky. Virginia legislators are determined to keep on top of this important issue. Virginia’s Department of Education already requires that food sold a la carte or separate from planned meals must meet at least 5 percent of the daily recommended intake of one of eight essential nutrients. Schools that receive funds for participation in the federal lunch program are restricted by nutritional guidelines developed by the government. Unfortunately, there is currently no state oversight of food for schools that do not receive federal funding.
Senator John Edwards, Roanoke Democrat says “It’s (obesity) is becoming a problem – – not just in Virginia, but nationwide. The first approach is to ensure that there are nutritional standards statewide.” He went on to say that healthy eating habits tend to be strongest in larger, wealthier school systems.
Senator Yvonne Miller, Norfolk Democrat echoed his sentiments noting that healthy measures stumble most in less affluent school systems. The bill she proposed would require that body mass index measurements be taken for every first-time kindergarten or elementary student.
With childhood obesity at epidemic proportions, it makes sense that all parties involved in the health and education of children should be involved. Often called “the state of Presidents” it also makes sense that Virginia would once again step forward and volunteer to be part of an important solution. Although the state motto may be “Virginia is for lovers,” it might also read “Virginia is for its children!” What more is there to say?