Overweight children and childhood obesity have become an epidemic in the United States, including Carson City.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that in just three decades, obesity has more than doubled among children ages 2-5 and adolescents 12-19, and has more than tripled among youths aged 6-11. As of 2004, the CDC reported that almost 19 percent of children ages 6-11 were overweight in the United States. In fact, overweight and obesity are now considered one of the most dangerous health problems facing children today.
Why should we be concerned about this problem? First, overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults. They are also at increased risk for premature onset of illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and high blood pressure. The increase in overweight children has also contributed to a dramatic increase of type 2 diabetes in children. Though once considered primarily an adult disease, type 2 diabetes now accounts for 8 to 45 percent of all newly diagnosed diabetes cases in children and adolescents.
Overweight children also suffer from the emotional stress of their condition. Bullying by other children is very common, and may result in low self esteem and depression. Young adolescents with eating disorders often begin developing their restrictive eating patterns in order to avoid the strong negative pressure of being overweight.
Parents must recognize that to prevent weight gain, an individual must take in fewer calories than he/she uses during the day. The family must also change together, since we know that children learn many of their habits in the home.
One thing that can help is initiating an exercise routine, which starts off slowly and builds up to at least 30 minutes four times a week. Starting off with 15 minutes and increasing by 5 minutes a week may be the best way to start. If other family members can engage in the activity with the child, it sets a good example and increases time spent together. A good example might be taking the dog for a long walk.
Other ways to help decrease weight gain in children are to try to eat together as a family, use healthy foods and portion control, and teach children how to make healthy food choices.
Children are influenced by how food fills up their plate, so if they are given a small plate completely covered with food, they are less likely to ask for more than if given a large plate with the same amount of food. When grocery shopping, parents can show children how to read product labels, especially with regard to fat and carbohydrate content.
You can also teach children how to make healthy snacks, avoid buying high sugar beverages, and switch from 2 percent milk to 1 percent or fat-free milk. Adolescents may enjoy learning how to cook healthy meals with their parents, and may even be asked to prepare a healthy meal for the family at least once a week.
Our Carson City community has also been taking steps to address the overweight issue in children. The Carson Wellness Coalition has worked with the schools to put healthy drinks and snacks, instead of high-calorie sodas and candy, Into school vending machines. The Coalition and the Parks and Recreation Department also sponsored a Great American Weight Loss Challenge this summer. The city is also working on a master plan which will include more bike trails and easily accessible sidewalks and walking paths for citizens to use.
Carson City also recently signed up for the WE CAN ! (Ways to Enhance Children's Activity and Nutrition) education program sponsored by The National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH has established the WE CAN ! city program to bring research-based information to parents, community groups, caregivers and health professionals on helping children between ages 8-13 maintain a healthy weight.
The program features training and activities focusing on improving food choices, increasing physical activity, and supporting and enabling reduced screen time (TV, video, etc). Carson is one of the first five cities nationwide to sponsor this program. By working together, families and the Carson community can make this a model program for the rest of the nation.
Carson City, along with other WE CAN! cities nationwide, will be kicking off its WE CAN! Program at 11 a.m. Thursday in a nationally publicized event. Nevada's first lady Dawn Gibbons, Mayor Marv Teixeira and many other dignitaries will be present to watch children from Bordewich-Bray Elementary School and the Washoe Tribe Head Start Program kick off the program by singing and dancing at the Nevada Children's Museum.
At the same time, all elementary public school classes in the county will take a simultaneous 10-minute activity break to help promote WE CAN!. Many more programs and activities will be planned over the next year, including classes for parents, caregivers, youth and community organizations.
For more information on the WE CAN! Program, go to http://wecan.nhlbi.nih.gov, or ask your young children what they did for their activity. If you wish to help with WE CAN! activities, please contact Barbara Singer, program manager of Special Projects for Carson City Parks and Recreation Department, at 887-2290, ext. 100.
• Vicky Fogelman is the director of Carson City Health and Human Services.