Child obesity becoming epidemic

It’s apparent on the streets and school playgrounds.
Childhood obesity.
Experts call the situation a North American epidemic. One in five children in the United States is now considered overweight and in Canada, statistics are similar.
Mark Tremblay says it’s a far-reaching problem, after extensively studying childhood obesity.
“Whatever study you look up, the numbers are going up really fast,” says the dean of kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan. “It’s the biggest public health issue in Canada. I think we should be very concerned.”
He has studied children aged seven to 13 for obesity based on their body mass index (BMI) — a height-to-weight ratio. If the child is beyond the 95th percentile for their age and gender, they are considered obese.
Tremblay and fellow researcher J.D. Williams identified obesity in five per cent of 2,879 surveyed children in 1981. Of 6,277 children surveyed in 1996, 16.6 per cent of boys and 14.6 per cent of girls were obese.
“It’s tripled over a 15-year period,” Tremblay said.
New national research released this month by Tremblay, Williams and Peter Katzmarzyk shows the percentage of overweight children has similarly increased. It found the prevalence of overweight children had ‘‘increased significantly in every province.’’
Mona Knudslien-Stock has noticed more overweight and obese students in the last five years.
“It’s the nature of our society,” says the principal at Aspen Heights Elementary School. “Kids are watching TV, playing computer games and we have noticed that in phys ed, they seem to be less fit. Some of them never get out of the house (at night).”
Alberta Milk reports young people receive the majority of their calories from snacks rather than meals. On average, one in six children report eating french fries or potato chips on a daily basis.
Half of kids also admit eating chocolate bars or candy every day. Many children don’t eat adequate amounts of vegetables, fruits and milk products.
Health workers, school officials and others in the community are paying attention.
Plans are underway to form an obesity-prevention group in the David Thompson Health Region, focusing on ways to get people active and to eat nutritiously.
“We are not going to point out people who have problems,” says public health nutritionist Jennifer Sundberg, adding the group will have a different name than obesity prevention. “It’s going to be an approach that everyone should be doing.”
Area schools are helping to ensure children aren’t eating lots of munchies and sitting in the halls.
Bluffton School in Rimbey has no vending machines and is generally pop-free except when there might be a school dance.
Yogurt, cheese strings, raw vegetables, pepperoni sticks and juice are available at the canteen.
The kindergarten to Grade 9 school stopped selling chips, licorice and chocolate bars last September, but principal Ron Hauser said they’ve had few complaints from students.
“We never really specifically looked at obesity, but we have been pushing nutrition,” he said. “We’ve encouraged parents not to send pop with their kids, but to send juices and the parents have supported that.”
Westpark Middle School’s parent council decided to have vending machines removed from its school and snack choices have gradually changed to sandwiches, baked chips and milk. Pop and chocolate bars aren’t sold.
Other schools are making similar decisions.
Aspen Heights Elementary School partnered with a community initiative — Hope, Health and Happiness in Aspen Heights — to concentrate on diabetes prevention. Overweight children are reported to have a higher risk for diabetes.
A co-ordinator was recently hired, thanks to a federal Health Canada grant, to work on the project.
“There is worry about the amount of chronic diseases because of inactivity,” Knudslien-Stock said. “That is definitely on the rise in Canada.”
The community initiative plans to host about a dozen family activities at the school or near it.
“As well, there will be a summer playground program that will be free for kids within the Aspen Heights area,” Knudslien-Stock said.
Some schools participate in the provincial Ever Active Schools Program and/or the health region’s Health Promoting Schools Initiative. Participating schools are encouraged to find ways to promote health in both cases and in the case of the health region program, a school health facilitator is provided.
Physical activity is a particular concern.
“I think kids are less active and the research supports that,” Sundberg said. “There is more computer work, more video games, just less physical activity.”
Health Canada recommends young people be moderately active for 60 minutes a day and vigorously active for 30 minutes a day.
“Our kids get 30 minutes of phys ed a day,” said Knudslien-Stock.
Knudslien-Stock believes some parents don’t have the money or time to enrol their kids in sports or take them to a recreational facility. Still, she said parents have a part to play.
“You can promote it in the schools and teach skills, but if there isn’t active living at home, that’s a very hard cycle to break,” she said.
Dr. Andrew Weil, the author of Eating Well for Optimum Health, encourages parents to talk with the family doctor if they’re concerned their child is overweight. There is a possibility the child could be going through a growth spurt.
Weil encourages parents to limit TV time and discourage snacking in front of the television.
“Provide regular opportunities for exercise. Suggest activities that your child enjoys and do them together,” Weil recommends on his Web site. “Be a good role model yourself.”