• About 1,200 calories are required to maintain your current weight when you don’t move your muscles for an entire day.
• Eaten throughout the day, about 2,000 to 2,300 calories are sufficient for an active person to maximize metabolism and sustain energy.
• It takes 3,500 calories to gain one pound.
DeDe Molter’s oldest son was considered skinny until he hit second grade. That is when he got hooked on video and computer games, giving him less time outdoors to run around with friends and more time indoors to raid the refrigerator. Now six years later, at 13, the Chicago boy stands 5’8’’ weighing 226 pounds.
"The doctor is concerned about his weight," says Molter, "and so am I. We’ve tried everything ... diets and exercise ... nothing seems to work."
Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, as of 2002, 16 percent of U.S. children and adolescents are overweight, a 45 percent increase from 1994.
"Kids are eating larger portions, more junk food and living a sedentary lifestyle," says Dr. Rebecca Unger, an attending physician at the Nutrition Clinic at Children’s Memorial Hospital. "It is a matter of ‘calories in’ verses ‘calories out.’ "
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that overweight children have a 70 percent chance of being overweight adults, which puts them at a higher risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer. Even more alarming is that some kids do not have to wait until they are adults to pay the price.
"Type 2 adult onset diabetes is on a huge increase in adolescence. We now have 13- and 14-year-olds with it," says Dr. Paul Aschinberg, a pediatrician associated with Provena St. Joseph Hospital and Silver Cross Hospital in Joliet and Children’s Memorial Hospital. "That was just unheard of 30 to 40 years ago."
Precocious puberty in girls is also on the rise because of childhood obesity. Aschinberg says that the body can trick the mind. If you have a 7-year-old who has the body size of a 10-year-old, the body could be fooled into starting puberty. Left untreated, precocious puberty can have devastating long-term effects both physically and emotionally.
Over the past few years, parents have been inundated by a smorgasbord of articles on childhood obesity and our "growing" population—yet the problem continues. We asked the experts to cut through the fat and leave us with only the basic ingredients needed for success.
Know the goal. "Parents need to remember the goal," says Unger. "Eat to stay fit—not to get skinny."
"We have to get away from the crash diet and boot camp mentality," says Brian Grasso, executive director of the International Youth Conditioning Association, an organization in Schaumburg that educates health officials, coaches and trainers. He says that parents will hear a report about childhood obesity being on the rise and freak out. "Parents will often overreact in the short term making all kinds of huge changes and then under react in the long term by not maintaining them." Small changes equal big successes.
It isn’t just what you eat, it is why you eat. "Kids eat because they are bored, depressed, happy, tired, because the TV is on," says Aschinberg. "Kids were not born this way. This is a learned behavior." He says parents condition their children early on to ignore the body’s natural cues for hunger and instead connect food with emotion, environment or certain activities. "I once sat at the park and watched a well-meaning parent call her child from play to offer him Goldfish crackers," he says. "Now, there is nothing wrong with Goldfish for a snack, but this kid wasn’t hungry, he was happy off playing."
We are in need of an attitude adjustment. Trying to lose weight isn’t fun. So Grasso says, don’t try to lose weight. You don’t have to start some big formal exercise program to get active. "Just go out and have fun and a more active lifestyle will happen naturally." Grasso suggests going for a family bike ride, a long walk or creating an obstacle course in your back yard. "Your kids will get exercise and not even know it."
Take charge—don’t rely on others to keep your kids healthy. Don’t think that just because something is served for school lunch it is healthy. Schools are required to serve from the four food groups. But the healthiest choices are not always on the menu. Chicken nuggets (meat), French fries (vegetable), a fruit cup loaded with fructose (fruit) and a chocolate milk (dairy) does not add up to a healthy lunch.
And don’t think that gym class or organized sports keeps the kids "active." Grasso says that a recent study on teens and gym class, done by Cornell University in New York, showed that teens are only active for about 16 minutes of a typical gym class. The rest of the time they are just standing around learning the rules of the game or in an outfield waiting for the ball to come their way. Most gym class games or team sports don’t require the constant movement needed to get the heart rate up.
It all starts with you. Parents control what goes into their cabinets. Kids will snack on whatever they find there. Unger says that keeping the healthy foods available and accessible is a must. Stock up on fruits, vegetables and whole wheat breads. Lay off goods high in fat and sugar. And whatever you do, don’t underestimate the power of example. Parents need to practice what they preach, get active, eat more fruits and vegetables, fewer chips and less junk food.
"Many children who have problems with their weight have at least one parent who has a weight problem," says Unger. Remember—your kids are watching.
Jean Dunning is a mom of four who writes about health and parenting issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.