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Diet and exercise is key to preventing child obesity

November 07, 2007|By LYNN LITTLE

Childhood obesity is growing at an alarming rate and has tripled in the last 30 years. One in six school-aged children is now overweight, according to Shirley Perryman, Cooperative Extension Specialist with Colorado State University.

Oddly, not all parents recognize the problem in their own families. Nine out of 10 parents polled by Consumer Reports this past June said they accepted that childhood obesity is a problem in the United States. But when asked about their own child, 50 percent of parents with overweight kids failed to recognize the problem.

If you're not sure if your child is overweight, your physician can help make that determination using a chart to plot height, weight and age.

A recently published study by Penn State and Temple universities showed that overweight and obese children miss more school days than normal and underweight kids. The obese kids were absent in part due to the stigma of being overweight and the bullying that results.

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Truancy, in turn, might set them up for future unhealthy behaviors. Missing school must be taken seriously. It can be a predictor of future drug use and increased pregnancy rates and academic performance.

There are many physical consequences, as well. In the past, high blood pressure was found mainly in adults, but it's becoming more common among kids. Children who are overweight usually have higher blood pressure than those who aren't. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke and kidney disease - just like it is for adults.

High blood pressure can be lowered with exercise and a healthy diet. If you've had your overweight child's blood pressure checked and it is in the acceptable range, don't assume all is well. There is still a greater chance it'll be elevated when the child becomes an adult.

Some factors that contribute to obesity can't be changed. For example, a child with two obese parents is more than six times as likely to become obese than a child with nonobese parents, according to a 1997 study. Children in some ethnic groups, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics, are at greater risk.

Some risk factors for obesity can be overcome:

· Eat at home more often. We express different behaviors when eating out and eating at home. Typically, people eat healthier and take in fewer calories when eating at home. For example, drinking milk or water at home is not unusual, whereas high-calorie soft drinks often become a popular choice when eating out.

· Make choices as a family to be active. Turn off the television or the computer and find some activities that you can participate in together. The number of hours spent watching television is associated with children being overweight. Taking a walk or riding bikes might be more common, but families can enjoy time together while raking leaves, working in the garden, mowing the lawn or vacuuming the floor.

· Habits become habits with practice. If children practice positive health habits, they will become internalized. Truly active activities often become habits if they're reinforced at the family level.

· Some parents might think children aren't listening to or following their nutrition advice. But generally children model much of a parent's eating behaviors, especially when the children are younger. Children imitate not only their parents' food choices and activity level, but also the portion sizes that adults eat.

We can help prevent risks of obesity by being aware of how we're eating, how we are moving and how we spend our leisure time.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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