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InFocus: The Rising Tide of Childhood Obesity

Obesity Spelled with Scrabble Pieces
Anna Tarazevich
Obesity Spelled with Scrabble Pieces

While the world has been chaotic over the last few years, many problems have been somewhat neglected, including the rising tide of childhood obesity.

Data shows childhood obesity has been steadily rising for years with many actions trying to combat this making very little change.

According to the CDC, the prevalence of obesity among children aged 2-19 was 19.7% from 2017-2020, affecting 14.7 million children.

These may be some of the recent numbers, but this issue has been growing for a long time.

Dr. Kurt Martin, a longtime family practice and internal medicine physician in Carbondale, says he has seen the increase of childhood obesity in his practice for decades.

“Over the last 20 to 30 years we’ve seen a larger number of children and adults who could be defined as obese and an even greater number in severe obesity,” Martin said.

Martin says the increase in obesity rates is complex, with multiple factors that need to be addressed.

“A combination of things. A decrease in physical activity may be linked to social media and increased screen time, an increase in empty calories that both kids and adults get in the form of drinks, simple carbohydrates from things like snack foods, and a decreased emphasis on physical activity in schools,” Martin said.

While some schools are cutting back on physical education, many changes have also been made to the food they can serve to try to mitigate the issue of childhood obesity.

During the Obama administration, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act brought a focus on healthier options such as roasted vegetables and organic offerings and earlier this year, new nutrition standards for schools were proposed to limit added sugars.

Dr. Lukasz Dabrowski, a pediatrician in Carbondale, says these changes are very good but it's challenging for schools to enact change.

“Schools are trying to accommodate certain guidelines. So, some of the things on there could always be potentially made a little healthier but it's always a struggle simply because of associated costs. How do you get the kids to eat it? I would definitely say the blame would not be on the schools,” Dabrowski said.

Dr. Martin agrees that these changes are needed but thinks more needs to be done outside the school.

He says, in many cases, there needs to be a whole house intervention.

“They did an interesting study where they took kids at risk for obesity and sent them to a physical therapist to teach them an exercise program and sent them to a dietitian to get good nutrition and it didn’t have much effect. They took the parents and did the same thing to the parents and that really did have a significant impact on kids.So, it is best if you do it as a whole house kind of intervention” Martin said.

Doctor Naeem Qureshi, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health at St. Joseph Memorial Hospital, says a lack of knowledge from parents about health risks can lead their kids to develop long term unhealthy habits that are hard to break.

“A child with obesity does not sleep well. If they do not sleep well, then the next day they are more tired. They are stressed out, they will eat more. They will gain more weight and it’s a vicious cycle. It’s difficult to break unless we do an intervention in between,” Qureshi said.

Dabrowski says something as simple as juice would shock parents if they knew the amount of sugar inside it.

“So, if someone were to convey to families that hey, in that juice, there’s ten teaspoons of sugar. They would be like wow, maybe we don’t need ten t-spoons. Maybe one tea-spoon would be good enough. You know stuff like that, so, I am sure there are plenty of opportunities. The question ends up being, what is the best approach to that” Dabrowski said.

Family doctor Kurt Martin says these unhealthy habits can lead to health conditions that many kids and parents won’t believe they need to worry about from such a young age.

“An increased risk of depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease are all present,” Martin said.

According to the CDC, other health risks are Gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, breathing problems, body pain, difficulty moving, and many forms of cancer.

Many of these issues are physical - but Qureshi, a Psychiatrist, says there are numerous mental health issues that can also arise from obesity.

“We are seeing patients who are dealing with obesity, obviously they are more socially isolated, they are having more stigma against them, and more discrimination. They are less active so they are less involved in social activities. We see kids complain of being bullied. Academic performance has declined. So, we have seen the effect of obesity on mental health and the effect of mental health on obesity,” Qureshi said.

With so many issues stemming from each other, Qureshi says this can be a complex issue to treat.

He says each person needs an individualized treatment plan.

“It will require a biopsychosocial model of treatment. It’s a family issue when we have an obesity challenge going on. We wanna make sure we provide the right education to the family members so they understand the effect of whatever is going on in their life on obesity and the effect of obesity on the person in their family,” Qureshi said.

To lower some of these risks, Dabrowski recommends getting kids used to healthy eating habits, such as drinking more water.

“So, the ultimate goal is not to allow our kids to be essentially drinking their calories. So, if we can focus on water, that is a great way to at least start them on the healthy path,” Dabrowski said.

Afroza Hasin, a nutrition professor at SIU, recommends kids have a diet that cuts out processed food with a lot of added salt, sugar, and fat and replace them with nutrient dense foods.

“They should be eating foods that are dense in nutrients. So we call those nutrient dense food choices like whole grain products, fruits and vegetables, and low fat or fat free dairy products,” Hasin said.

She says there have been many initiatives across the country to help educate parents on healthy lifestyles, such as the CDC's Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child initiative.

“Among many components of the WSCC model, there is physical activity, nutrition, health education, and counseling where they involve the community members, invite the parents and people from health services to address the issues of childhood obesity and the health of our children” Hasin said.

For more information about this program and others that are working to educate parents, click here.

Ethan Holder is a student contributor for WSIU Public Broadcasting located at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Contact WSIU Radio at 618-453-6101 or email wsiunews@wsiu.org
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