Battling childhood obesity is about the numbers

July 11, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Marty Ritchie leads his Head Start of Washington County students through a fun song teaching them how to make healthy food choices.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

It's elementary. Healthy lifestyle choices should begin in childhood.

But parents are busy. Fast food is cheap. And technology helps keep children sedentary.

As a result, one out of three children in the United States is overweight or obese, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

They are at risk for developing serious health problems, such as Type 2 diabetes, that will carry over into adulthood.

That's why Becki Weir believes it's important to promote healthy lifestyle choices as early as possible.

A program called "5-2-1-0 Everyday!" is helping her do the job.

"5-2-1-0" is a community-based initiative intended to increase physical activity, decrease screen time and improve eating habits for children and youth, said Weir, community health outreach coordinator for Meritus Medical Center. Weir's department helps to set up the local program.

Through education and activities, the program targets children older than age 2, as well as families.

Weir said "5-2-1-0" refers to five or more fruits and vegetables each day; two hours or less recreational screen time; one hour or more of physical activity; and zero sugary drinks and more water and low-fat milk.

The "5-2-1-0" message is nationally-endorsed and promoted by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"The goal of the program," Weir said, "is to provide several simple lifestyle messages that families can follow to help kids be healthier. It endorses attacking childhood obesity in small ways that can create lasting long-term results."

Weir said the program got off the ground locally this spring, when three health registered nurses from the medical center were working on their master's degrees in nursing at Towson University.

"They worked with several preschool and after-school sites, including Head Start, Girls Inc., YMCA after-school programs, Boys and Girls Clubs and Memorial Recreation," she said.

The sites were provided with tool kits, which included lesson plans, program recommendations and handouts for children and families. In addition to the various sites, the nurses also taught classes for the Maryland Department of Education licensed childcare providers.

The local campaign also has borrowed resources from an initiative in Maine called "Let's Go!," which also battles childhood obesity, Weir said.

According to Weir, how long participants stay in the program is an individual matter.

"Every school or organization can decide how long they would like to implement it and in how much detail," she said.

Over the past year, Weir said Meritus has been using community events to get the word out about the program.

"Information was distributed at the Washington County Health Department expo this spring. And we're currently collaborating with the Nutrition and Physical Activity Partnership (NAPA) of Washington County and United Way to plan events and activities to spread the "5-2-1-0" message," she said.

Weir said the lifestyle principles and the rationale for 5-2-1-0 are as follows:

1. Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Rationale: A diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides vitamins and minerals, important for supporting growth and development, as well as optimal immune function in children. High daily intakes of fruits and vegetables among adults are associated with lower rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, high-blood pressure, diabetes and, possibly, some types of cancer. Emerging science suggests fruit and vegetable consumption might help prevent weight gain, and, when total calories are controlled, they may be an important aid to achieving and sustaining weight loss.

2. Only two hours or less of recreational screen time each day.

Rationale: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average child watches an average of five to six hours of television a day. Watching too much television is associated with an increased prevalence of overweight and obesity, lower reading scores and attention problems. The AAP, therefore, recommends that children younger than the age of 2 shouldn't watch any television. In addition, AAP recommends no TV or computer in the room in which the child sleeps and no more than two hours of screen time a day.

3. One hour or more of physical activity each day.

Rationale: Regular physical activity is essential for weight maintenance and prevention of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer and osteoporosis. While most school-age children are quite active, physical activity sharply declines during adolescence. Children who are raised in families with active lifestyles are more likely to stay active as adults than children raised in families with sedentary lifestyles.

4. Zero sugary drinks, drink more water and low-fat milk.

Rationale: Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption has increased dramatically over the past 20 years; high intake among children is associated with being overweight and obese, displacement of milk consumption and dental cavities. It is recommended that children 1 to 6 years old consume no more than 4 to 6 ounces of juice per day and youths 7 to 18 years old consume no more than 8 to 12 ounces. Whole milk is the single largest source of saturated fat in children's diets. Switching to low or nonfat milk products significantly reduces dietary saturated and total fat, as well as total calories.

Weir said family fliers and tool kits are available for those interested in participating in "5-2-1-0." Lesson plans and tips are included.

"Again, our primary goal is awareness," Weir said. "We would love to reach as many community families and organizations as possible."

To learn more ...

In concert with NAPA and United Way, Weir said Meritus will be offering program-related activities and information over upcoming months at the following events:

  •  Neighborhood Night Out, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 6 to 8 p.m., Fairgrounds Park
  •  Hagerstown Housing Authority Community Fair, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Elgin Station
  •  Bester Community Cares event, Thursday, Sept. 15, evening hours, Bester Elementary School
  •  Convoy of Hope, Saturday, Sept. 24, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Fairgrounds Park
  •  Head Start Family Night, TBD in October

More information on "5-2-1-0 Everyday!" is available by contacting

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series on childhood obesity.

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