Prevent Adult Obesity in Childhood

Heli J. Roy  |  3/19/2005 1:05:16 AM

One quarter of all U.S. children ages 2 to 17 are obese, according to the Center on an Aging Society. Several more million children are at risk. Obese children are more likely to remain obese in adulthood, says LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Heli Roy.

If obesity occurs before age 3, and the family has a healthy lifestyle, and parents are not obese, there is little likelihood of obesity in later life. If obesity persists until age 6, more than half of those children will become obese adults. If obesity persists until adolescence, between 70 and 80 percent will remain obese as adults.

The LSU AgCenter nutritionist says obesity is a risk factor for four of the top 10 chronic diseases that lead to premature death. Diabetes and hypertension rates correlate with weight and are seen in younger children more than ever before. Chronic diseases of middle age are now seen in adolescents.

Roy says since the 1970s, there has been an alarming increase in childhood obesity in all ages and races. The increase in obesity, however, is particularly alarming in black and Hispanic children, having increased more than 120 percent since the late 1970s. Boys are more obese than girls, children from the southern states are more obese than in the rest of the country, and low income children are more obese than those from higher income homes.

What are some of the reasons for the increase in obesity in children? According to several research studies, environmental changes have contributed to the increase in obesity in children. Several studies indicate that physical activity in children has decreased. After-school activity in children has dropped significantly because of increased television viewing, video games and more recently, increased number of home computers and computer games that occupy their time.

"Younger children may be watching up to four hours of television per day, and older high school-age children watch two hours of television a day," Roy points out, adding, "Adolescent girls have always had the lowest physical activity level."

In the recent years, nevertheless, adolescent boys have replaced after-school outdoor play with computer games, resulting in decreased physical activity.

Activity in school has declined as well. With increased demand on academic courses and student performance on standardized tests, physical education courses have dwindled. Additionally, recess has been eliminated in large numbers of schools to reduce behavioral problems.

The LSU AgCenter nutritionist says while activity has plummeted, food intake has not. It remains about the same. In addition, children are consuming more pre-prepared, restaurant and fast-food meals, which tend to be high in fat, salt and sugar. Children do not consume adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables and whole-grain breads and cereals.

What can be done? Roy says to make sure your child gets enough physical activity. She recommends at least 60 minutes of physical activity or more with about 30 minutes as vigorous physical activity every day. For children, this can be unstructured, fun, outdoor play such as bicycle riding, skateboarding, basketball and other sports. Get involved with the many available individual and group sports.

"Encourage your child to be physically active to set them for a lifetime of healthy choices," Roy says, advising, "Keep fresh fruits and vegetables available for snacks between meals."

She says to serve more fruits and vegetables at meals and reduce the portion sizes of protein and starches if necessary. As a parent, teaching your children healthy habits is the best gift you can give them. It lasts a lifetime.

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