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A Weighty Matter—Heavier American Kids

America is seeing an epidemic increase in childhood obesity according to the Dec. 12 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Between 1986 and 1998, overweight (defined as body mass index greater than the 95th percentile for age and sex), increased significantly and steadily in children aged four to 12.

By 1998, overweight prevalence in children increased to 21.5 percent among African Americans, 21.8 percent among Hispanics, and 12.3 percent among non-Hispanic whites. This increase was fastest among minorities and southerners, creating large demographic differences by 1998.

These findings echoed those released last March from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Their report indicated that more and more children and teens are overweight, continuing the pattern of the previous two decades when the number of overweight children and teens nearly doubled.

Results from the survey showed 13 percent of children aged 6 to 11 years are overweight, up from 11 percent in the previous survey conducted from 1988 to 1994. The number of overweight teenagers 12-19 years increased from 11 to 14 percent in the same time period.

Tim Gillespie, a pediatrician and Baptist layperson in Memphis, Tenn., confirmed that these findings are reflected in the population he treats.

“I am seeing more and more obese children, and the degree of obesity seems greater in the individual patients,” Gillespie told EthicsDaily.com.

Although children have fewer weight-related health problems than adults, overweight children are at high risk of becoming overweight adolescents and adults. And overweight adults are at increased risk for health problems that include high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

While genetic factors play a role in increasing the likelihood that a child will be overweight, shared family behaviors such as eating and activity habits also influence a child’s weight.

The increasing popularity of television, video games, and computers contributes to today’s inactive lifestyles, with the average American child spending approximately 24 hours each week watching television, time that could be spent in some sort of physical activity.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (part of the National Institutes of Health) offers tips for addressing childhood obesity:

· Be supportive—Let overweight children know they are accepted no matter what their weight.
· Focus on the family—Do not set children apart because of weight, but focus on gradually changing the family’s physical activity and eating habits.
· Increase family’s physical activity—Model a personal active lifestyle, plan active family diversions, reduce sedentary family time, be sensitive to activity limitations or embarrassments of an overweight child.
· Teach healthy eating habits—Start when children are young, encouraging in all family members a positive, balanced attitude toward enjoyment of food.

Gillespie also said the need for a family-oriented approach is important.

“Often, the parents are equally affected, so that any therapies directed at the child will sink or swim with the level of the entire family’s involvement,” Gillespie said. “Although nutrition seems to be improving from what I see in the office, the sedentary lifestyle is difficult to overcome.”

Concerned for body, mind and spirit, what can churches do to address obesity in children?

· Be a good example—While church leaders who work with children are not immune from being overweight, seeing themselves as role models may provide an incentive for demonstrating healthy eating and exercise habits.
· Incorporate physical activity into events—In regular weekly ways (marching around classrooms while singing) and less frequent periodic settings (a party with active games in the park), children and their families can be encouraged toward greater physical activity.
· Offer healthy snacks and meals.

While Gillespie said he wished churches could be involved in direct ways to help children be less sedentary.

“What is even more important is that these children feel comfortable in their age group within the congregation,” he said. “My fear is that they get the same treatment at church as they do in the rest of the world—rejection and derision. This is the area in which all in the body of Christ can help—acceptance and nurturing.”

Karen Johnson Zurheide is a Dartmouth-MBA-turned-writer and former director of a Connecticut-wide parent support network. Karen and her husband and two children reside in Edmond, Okla.

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