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Health Information The Buzz on ... childhood obesity
 

Preventing and treating this epidemic starts at home.

With Halloween fast-approaching, parents are bracing themselves for the bag-loads of treats that wreak havoc on kids' diets. While a candy bar now and then won't bust the scale, kids who adopt unhealthy eating habits as part of their day-to-day lives are at risk for childhood obesity.

Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in the United States have tripled. Today, nearly one in three children in America is overweight or obese. If left untreated, these children are at a higher risk for chronic obesity-related problems like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma. In fact, clinicians are actually seeing "adult" diseases and conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and asthma already present in children today.

If obesity isn't addressed and treated in childhood, the problem will continue to grow — literally. "In general, obese kids become obese adults, and they don't tend to get to a healthy weight without some kind of treatment plan," says Bradley Appelhans, PhD, a clinical psychologist and obesity researcher at the Rush University Prevention Center.

Recognizing the Problem

Children are defined as overweight or obese through their body mass index (BMI) percentile. In children, BMI is measured by weight in relation to height and then compared to other children of the same sex and age. Children with a BMI over the 85th percentile are overweight; children with a BMI over the 95th percentile are obese. 

Reversing and preventing childhood obesity starts at home. Appelhans is currently conducting a study that identifies home environment risk factors for childhood obesity in low-income households, which are, statistically, at a higher risk for obesity. The goal of the study is to use this knowledge to design a childhood obesity treatment program that focuses on modifying the home environment. The study is currently recruiting Chicago families with children ages 6-13; click here for more information, or call (312) 942-8260

To both prevent and treat childhood obesity, it's important to know what you're up against. According to Appelhans, the brain handles food in a way that promotes weight gain. For instance, simply seeing a delicious food — even in a television commercial — causes a person to actually crave the food so strongly that it is often difficult to resist. "Given that, by modifying these situations or your environment, you may be able to avoid the temptation altogether," says Appelhans.

In adults, the brain region responsible for suppressing this desire to eat — the prefrontal cortex — has difficulty curbing cravings. "It is probably even less effective in kids because that part of the brain doesn't fully mature until your early 20s," says Appelhans.

Looking Within

Taking on childhood obesity is not about teaching children to count calories. Rather, parents need to learn what children should be eating and proper portion sizes. Parents can find information on meal composition at www.myplate.gov. But Appelhans says that parents who are worried about their kids' weight or think there is a problem should get support.

The Rush University Prevention Center provides family-based behavioral weight management services. Clinicians help the family determine what dietary and physical activity factors are contributing to the problem, what the child should be eating and what strategies parents can implement to promote healthier eating habits.

Parents also need to look within and evaluate their own eating behaviors. "Kids often share the dietary patterns of their parents," says Appelhans. "If parents have a preference for fast food, of course their kids will end up eating that, too."

Furthermore, children with overweight parents are at a higher risk of being overweight. "We expect that some of the childhood obesity risk is linked to genetic inheritance," says Appelhans. "But the behaviors causing the parents to be overweight are also being transferred to the kids."

Make a Change

One way to start turning things around: having meals as a family so you are more aware of what your kids are eating. Additionally, allowing the kids to help prepare these family meals may make them more open to trying healthier fare.

Appelhans also suggests simply not having junk food readily available. "I’m not saying that you can't give your kids ice cream. But you shouldn't have pints of ice cream in the freezer," he says. "It is much better to go out for ice cream once in a while, rather than having it in the home."

Of course, sometimes it's tough to avoid a sweet treat, especially around Halloween. Parents may need to limit how much candy children collect. "Let the kids have fun and indulge on Halloween," says Appelhans. "But it should not be the kind of thing where they are collecting enough candy to last a month."


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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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