After tripling in a single generation, childhood obesity rates are cresting and even falling in some U.S. cities.
“We’re seeing it level off — it’s not continuing to go up and up and up,” said Angie Treadwell, nutritional services director at Umatilla-Morrow Head Start. “But that doesn’t mean we still don’t have a problem.”
A third of our children are overweight or obese. Overweight children continue to develop medical conditions previously not seen until adulthood: diabetes (Type 2), joint problems and cardiovascular disease. Three decades ago, doctors didn’t usually diagnose diabetes until a person hit their 40s, 50s or 60s.
University of California-Los Angeles researchers found that obese children are 200 percent more likely to have at least three more medical, mental or developmental problems than children of normal weight. Academic Pediatrics recently published the study.
Treadwell, a registered dietician, works with low-income families to improve health.
“I have seen kids so obese they have sleep apnea,” Treadwell said. “I see 4-year-olds who weigh 100 pounds.”
She said those cases underline the importance of getting parents involved in making healthy lifestyle changes for themselves and their children.
“At three, four and five years old, you’re not overweight because of the choices you’ve made,” Treadwell said.
She encourages parents to model healthy behavior, drinking water instead of sugary beverages, cooking nutritious food and sitting down at the table with their children to enjoy it. They can also encourage activity by going for a walk or playing catch.
Treadwell said research provides clues about why our kids have gotten wider — everything from the size of dishware and portions, increasing screen time, fewer home-cooked meals and insufficient sleep to the availability of cheap processed foods and sugar-laden drinks.
Dr. Daniel Marks, pediatric endocrinologist at Oregon Health & Science University, worries about “the unbelievable increase in consumption of simple sugars” and animal fats.
Marks said federal farm policy is putting large multinational corporations before children’s health.
“The chief underlying cause is economic,” Marks said. “The government has made it very cheap to grow corn and produce sugar in this country. Fruits and vegetables have gotten expensive. Monsanto continues to dominate decisions about our national food supply.”
The sedentary lifestyle of many children multiplies the effect of bad nutritional choices.
“More than half the children in this country get zero regular activity,” Marks said. “Our bodies aren’t built for that.”
Many school districts are fighting back. The Umatilla School District is one pushing health with a gentle but firm hand.
School meals are fruit and veggie-centric with whole grains and an array of healthy, low-sugar offerings. Food Services Director Guy Jager has helped students understand the origins of food by installing raised beds on campus.
Physical activity is also a priority in Umatilla schools.
Each year, students at McNary Heights Elementary School run a marathon over 10 days during their physical education classes. PE teacher Lee Cody started the practice 29 years ago. After some groans, he said, the students generally embrace the annual ritual.
“It isn’t rocket science,” Cody said. “They understand if they exercise regularly and eat right, they’ll be healthy.”
A couple of the runners, Ryleigh Freel, 8, and Yasmine Torres, 11, said they are active both in and out of school and try to eat right.
Ryleigh said she felt nervous at first about the marathon, but now enjoys collecting the neon foot-shaped tokens she gets after each mile. The second-grader said she exercises at home, playing with her Pomeranian in the backyard or riding bikes.
Yasmine said she is able to resist the draw of television and computer.
“Me and my friends, we’re outside being active,” she said. “There are other kids who are playing video games, watching movies — they’d rather be inside.”
That’s not good, Treadwell said.
“They’re continually being bombarded by ads — constant visual reminders they should eat,” she said. “A high percentage of ads are for non-nutritious foods.”
Umatilla County Public Health Administrator Genni Lehnert-Beers said a coalition of health partners (The Umatilla County Community Health Partnership) has targeted childhood obesity in Umatilla County and is now developing goals. Those interested in joining a work group should contact the health department.
“The process is slow and arduous but a task that cannot be ignored,” Lehnert-Beers said. “Our children are depending on us and we have to much to lose if we fail.”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.