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Fight to be Fit: Communities struggle with issue of overweight youth

About this series: Children in the U.S. today face the possibility that they will live shorter lives than their parents. Changes in American society, from increased portion sizes to foods with little nutritional value to technological devices of all kinds that discourage physical activity, have led to an estimated one-third of children and adolescents being considered overweight or obese. The Daily Chronicle presents a three-day series on childhood obesity and its effects on our children.

Land of the free. Home of the glutton.

America’s appetite for excess has reached its children, and the consequences threaten to be devastating. Within Illinois and across the country, the issue has gone from troubling to downright alarming.

The problem of obesity itself is both straightforward and complex – stripped down to an individual level, the solution is simply to eat healthier and increase exercise.

Yet experts know that to turn the trend around, they need to understand and alter how the fitness level of children is influenced by forces like parents, schools and society.

In simple terms, a child with excess body fat is considered overweight or obese. Doctors take several factors into consideration – including weight, age, height and gender – to determine whether a child fits one of those categories. A child well above the normal weight for his or her age and height is considered obese, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In 1980, U.S. children ages 6 to 11 and 12 to 19 had obesity rates of 7 percent and 5 percent, respectively. By 2010, obesity rates in both age groups had increased to 18 percent, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That study also found that about a third of children ages 2 to 19 were considered overweight or obese in 2010, compared to about 69 percent of adults.

The effects are serious and widespread, and there might be no better illustration of obesity’s rapid incline and the corresponding detriment to health than an observation in a 2005 study in The New England Journal of Medicine, which found that this generation of children could end up living shorter lives than their parents.

Issue hard to define

Broken down by state, disparities emerge between separate studies, and it’s unclear where Illinois falls. A 2007 study by the National Survey on Children’s Health showed the state carried an obesity rate of 20.7 percent among 10- to 17-year-olds, fourth-worst in the country.

But divisions of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found much different results more recently. In 2009, the CDC found 11.9 percent of Illinois high-schoolers were obese. The center found 14.6 percent of children aged 2 to 5 were obese in 2010.

In DeKalb County, officials are working to improve the quality of information about local youth.

Data for the county have been supplied on a voluntary basis by adults for several years as part of the the Illinois Project for Local Assessment of Needs but obesity data on children until recently have been hard to track down – obscuring the depth of the problem.

Jane Lux, the public health administrator for the DeKalb County Health Department, said the county has begun to compile data available on school physical forms to determine aggregate body mass index figures for students. BMI is a calculation of body fat that for children relies on height, weight, gender and age.

“We’re getting better and better information about actual health outcomes,” Lux said. “We haven’t had a lot of information on children in the past.”

Obesity numbers skyrocket in poorer areas. In a study conducted by Chicago Public Schools during the 2010-11 school year, 29.2 percent of sixth-graders were obese.

Dr. Bob Topp, childhood obesity expert and associate dean of Marquette University’s college of nursing, said part of that can be attributed to the fact poor areas generally are “food deserts.”

“There aren’t grocery stores for four miles,” Topp said. “The only source of food is [convenience] stores. And C-stores do not stock what we think of as healthy foods.”

Increase has many causes

There are many reasons for childhood obesity’s rise, but experts often start the discussion by noting changes in American society during the past two or three decades.

Fast food and soda – filled with empty calories, and sold cheaply and in large quantities – are everywhere and fit neatly into our on-the-go lifestyles. Advertising is heavy for those products, and often geared toward children – $1.6 billion is spent annually on food advertising to children and adolescents, according to the Federal Trade Commission

“A lot of times parents will not make the vegetables at night because they just sort of go, ‘My kid won’t like it, and I don’t want the fight,’ ” said Nancy Prange, the director of Northern Illinois University’s Dietetic Internship Program. “So they just don’t do it.”

In addition, technology makes it easy to stay entertained without expending much energy. As the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity noted in its 124-page report in 2010, “screen time” is up among children, as kids continue to sit in front of TVs, computers and gaming systems.

One of the major issues, according to Topp, is that the health care system doesn’t know how to treat obesity. It’s a behavioral disease, and requires prevention rather than medication or surgery.

But that fact has led to a “tipping point,” said Beverly Henry, an associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at NIU. There are now many organizations working to find solutions in most communities.

In DeKalb County, for instance, many organizations have united under the umbrella of the Coordinated Approach to Children’s Health program that has been implemented at schools. CATCH focuses on encouraging healthier food choices and physical activity and reducing screen time.

“When we reach them earlier, and the school districts and other community members support it, that’s when you see behavioral changes over time,” said Lisa Cumings, Kishwaukee Hospital’s community health liaison. “Now kids are teaching their parents, and the culture is changing.”

County schools aren’t the only local organizations focusing on health programs for children. Local hospitals, the DeKalb County Health Department, the Kishwaukee Family YMCA, NIU and others have put forth programs to curb the childhood obesity epidemic in the past few years.

It remains to be seen if, and to what degree, those efforts will affect local children.

“In the beginning, everyone comes to the table with their own agenda,” Henry said. “It takes a while to form that common goal and that common plan.”

Visit the "Real Nutrition" blog for healthy meal tips
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