Like any parent, Michelle Long had always believed that her son Treysen could accomplish anything to which he applied himself.
But as the years wore on and high school approached, the Kingston mom noticed her 14-year-old son was starting to fall to the back of the pack during youth football practices. Because of his size, Treysen started to lose interest in sports and his confidence took some hits.
Michelle Long sought the guidance of a self-proclaimed “former fat guy,” Ray Binkowski of FitWorkz in DeKalb.
After months of training four days a week that started in January, Treysen saw gains that helped him in football, basketball and baseball.
“It was pretty intense,” Treysen Long said. “In the beginning I was nowhere near as in shape or as fast as I am now.”
His mom stopped inside the gym one day and was moved to tears by what she saw.
“It struck me to see him so proud of himself and so confident in himself and accomplishing things that I had always known that he could do,” Michelle Long said. “I just didn’t have the keys to help him get there.”
Long’s case is not unique. Many parents never were properly equipped to teach their children how to lead a healthy lifestyle in the face of a changing society.
That’s reflected in statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which show that obesity in the United States has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2010, more than a third of children and adolescents were considered overweight or obese.
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 if a child fits one of those categories.
Obesity-related illnesses led New England Journal of Medicine researchers in 2005 to predict that despite advancements in medical technology, the current generation of children could have shorter lifespans than their parents. In addition to a damaged health outlook, those who deal with obesity in their youth face psychological scarring, and can struggle to break bad habits their entire lives.
The issue of childhood obesity begins as a matter of physical well-being and sprawls in every direction.
It used to be that diabetes – a disease that contributed to about 230,000 deaths in 2007, according to the American Diabetes Association – was talked about in terms of “adult-onset” or “juvenile.”
That’s not the case anymore. Because of the obesity problem, physicians in the past two decades have seen an increase in the number of cases of Type 2 diabetes, or adult onset, in children.
The Type 2 form of the disease – in which the body does not correctly use or produce insulin – is usually diagnosed in those 40-years-old or older, according to the CDC.
“Type 2 diabetes is so prevalent among kids that we don’t call it adult onset diabetes anymore,” said Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute. “It’s just Type 2 diabetes.”
That increase is troubling because medical professionals don’t know yet exactly the sort of complications brought on by living most of one’s life as a Type 2 diabetic.
“Everything that we think about with chronic diseases for adults – heart disease, diabetes, things like that – may occur even earlier with these kids,” said Beverly Henry, an associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University.
Overall, a third of children born in 2000 are expected to develop diabetes in their lifetimes, according to a May 2010 report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity.
In addition to life-threatening diseases, obesity puts children at a greater risk for developing asthma, which can in turn encourage inactivity.
“You may be more prone to asthma attacks,” Henry said. “Of course, if the asthma is not in good control, you may even be less likely to be physically active.”
Binkowski knows plenty about the vicious cycle that can lead to a weight problem. As a college student, he turned to the cafeteria as an escape from the world.
“It was an all-you-can-eat buffet of all kinds of food, and I ate them – lots of them,” he said.
But his overeating, combined with a sedentary lifestyle, only fueled the cycle and gave him more reasons to hide.
That’s a tough reality for many children who deal with obesity.
Obesity – recently labeled a disease by the American Medical Association – can affect an individual’s self-esteem and make them a target for bullies, Henry said.
“Just think back to those grade-school years, all those body shape changes with puberty,” Henry said. “When kids are overweight, they mature earlier, but their psychological development is not going to mature earlier. So now the physical body changes are happening before the brain can kind of reason that this is just a part of growing up.”
It was a sudden realization that set Binkowski on a path toward fitness and helping others to avoid the mistakes he had made.
“I woke up one day, and I had just bought a suit,” he said. “It didn’t fit. The pants were tailored to 36, and I didn’t have money to buy a new suit, and certainly I couldn’t make the pants bigger.”
Many years later, Binkowski, who has a mechanical engineering degree from NIU, owns FitWorkz, has written a book on how to eat healthy, and has two kids who motivate him to put others on the right path.
“I want people to avoid the lifestyle I had,” he said.
Nancy Prange, the director of the dietetic internship program at NIU, which supplies student-teachers to DeKalb County classrooms, said that teaching the reason behind positive health choices sets a base for children that can end the cycle and extend to other areas of life.
“When they understand why it’s important for them to move and they can see and feel those body cues – their heart is beating and they’re sweaty – when they understand why they need to eat those fruits and vegetables,” she said. “It makes it easier to make those choices.”
With rising health issues associated with obesity comes a rising cost.
It’s estimated that obese adults take on an extra $1,429 annually in medical expenses than adults who maintain a healthy weight, according to the 2010 White House report.
In Illinois, obesity costs the health care system $3.4 billion annually, according to the Illinois Public Health Institute. Some experts believe that cost could skyrocket because of childhood obesity, climbing as high as $14 billion by 2018, according to the Illinois Public Health Institute.
Bob Topp, associate dean at Marquette’s College of Nursing who has extensively researched childhood obesity, said a major issue is that we aren’t finding viable solutions yet to obesity-related illnesses.
“One of the major problems is that the health care system doesn’t know how to treat it,” Topp said. “It isn’t well-attended by the common approaches to disease of surgery or medication. It’s a behavioral disease.”
That fact has set off efforts on many fronts. Schools, hospitals, nonprofits, health departments and other organizations have gotten in on trying to fix obesity from the ground up.
“Your weight is the result of two things, and only two things: caloric intake and caloric expenditure,” Topp said. “The issue then is how do we effect what they put in their mouth and the activity they do.”
• Shaw Media reporter Shawn Shinneman contributed to this report.