Article on Childhood Obesity

Posted on: Tue, 07/12/2005 - 6:22am
mommyofmatt's picture
Joined: 03/12/2004 - 09:00

Since this is becoming a hot topic, articles like this should help anyone when trying to cut down on food in classrooms, vending machines, etc.

Bleak future for kids

Inactivity, bad diet fuel soaring diabetes, obesity rates

By Rachel Uranga, Staff Writer

Today's youths face a daunting future.
Collectively, they are set to become the first generation of Americans to have a shorter life span than their parents. Junk-food diets, sofa-based living, and stressful and polluted environments have pushed childhood obesity, diabetes and asthma to unprecedented levels.

If nothing is done, experts say, these chronic health problems - once rare among the nation's young people - will reach epidemic proportions and push the limits of an already overextended public health system.

"We are looking at something that could devastate the next generation and decimate our work force," said Dr. Francine Kaufman, author of "Diabesity," an eye-opening look at the speed with which diabetes, hypertension and other obesity-related diseases are afflicting children.

When Kaufman began practicing medicine more than two decades ago, she rarely treated children with type 2 diabetes. She's now the director of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, and one out of every four cases she sees are youngsters with the disorder.

Because of poor dietary habits and environmental factors, children of low-income families are disproportionately affected by diabetes, obesity and asthma. Children living in poverty - mostly blacks and Latinos - also have less access to health care that helps them ward off or treat chronic illnesses.

And studies show that chronically ill children who miss a lot of school perform worse academically, jeopardizing their long-term success.

In California, the number of overweight children ages 6-11 has tripled since the 1970s, and a 2002 study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy found that 26.5 percent of the state's students were overweight.

Cheap, fatty foods have deluged poor neighborhoods, school cafeterias and television commercials. And while Los Angeles Unified and other school districts have recently banned junk food from campus vending machines, that hasn't stopped students from continuing the poor eating habits developed at an early age.

"At some point we will reach a community, a society where asthma, obesity and diabetes is the norm and that's what we want to prevent," said Christine Park, interim medical director of children's health services at Northeast Valley Health Corp., the largest nonprofit community health center in the San Fernando Valley.

Rates of type 2 diabetes - like obesity, the result of inactivity and poor nutrition - have also jumped, and experts predict that one in three children born in 2000 will develop the disease in their lifetime.

All the while, cases of asthma - the most common chronic childhood disease - continue to escalate.

Aggravated by stress and environmental pollutants, cases of asthma have tripled in the last 20 years, and the disease now afflicts one in 13 school-aged children in the state.

Twelve-year-old Miny Oejada and her parents never thought to make a link between poverty, the food they eat or the air they breathe with serious health conditions such as diabetes or asthma.

"It's scary. I was just in shock when they told me," said Oejada, a 210-pound seventh-grader who learned last year she was borderline diabetic. "For a minute my heart stopped; I couldn't believe it."

Many diabetic and asthmatic children initially don't show symptoms of the diseases, so parents don't realize their children are ill or at risk, said Park, who sees dozens of children a month.

With no apparent symptoms, many parents "don't feel the need to follow the treatments or recommendations," she said.

But if the health of children today isn't apparent, it will be to the next generation as unhealthy youths become chronically sick adults.

"If they don't pay for these kids now, then we're going to all be paying for this as a society in the future," said Dr. Naomi Neufeld, a clinical professor of pediatrics at University of California, Los Angeles, and founder and executive director of Kidshape, a weight management program for youth and families in Los Angeles.

Already, California's weight problem cost businesses and the state $22 billion in 2000 and an estimated $28 billion this year in lost productivity, higher insurance premiums and medical costs. That number will continue to soar if rates of diabetes increase in children. Already the disease accounts for $1 of every $10 spent on health care.

"We are creating people who at earlier stages have chronic diseases, that need continuing care. We are making a lot more people dependent on the medical care system," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of public health for Los Angeles County and the co-director of UCLA's Center for Healthier Children.

The thought of being chronically ill as an adult scares Oejada, who already must visit the doctor three to four times a year to check her blood-sugar levels.

But her fears aren't strong enough to break the cycle of poor diet and inactivity that guide her young life.

"I started to work out. But then games, new television shows came along. You can't help it, you have to watch - all the drama, all the great television shows, all the great cartoons and you can't help yourself."

With so many enticing alternatives attracting children away from exercise, pediatricians alone can no longer help overweight children.

Doctors are supplementing diabetes and weight treatments with a phalanx of dietitians, psychologists and family therapists to help patients rethink their lifestyle. Similarly, therapists and psychologists are helping families cope with other chronic conditions such as asthma.

The number of full-time psychologists employed at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles has tripled over three decades and there are now 20 in-house trainees assigned to the medical center.

"You can't expect families to work this out on their own," said Dr. Robert Jacobs, head of the hospital's pediatrics department. "These are chronic problems that require a diversity of interventions."

The nation is slowly beginning to wake up to at least some of the problems.

McDonald's restaurants, which made the phrase "super-size" part of the American lexicon, nixed the caloric juggernaut last year. Now the fast-food giant sells salads and fruit cups along with Big Macs and fries.

LAUSD has banned soda and candy bar sales on campus, and Los Angeles County formed a task force on childhood asthma last year.

But experts say the push toward healthier living must continue and the battle for healthy children is far from over.

"The good news is that nobody is sitting back and just glazing over the data," said Yolie Flores Aguilar, executive director of the county's Children's Planning Council. "But it takes time to do what we call 'turning the curve.'

"None of these issues are going to go away in a year or two. We have to keep our eye on the prize and stay focused."

This is the first article in a six-part series that will run on successive Sundays and Mondays.

Monday: The high cost of childhood obesity.

Rachel Uranga, (818) 713-3741 [email][/email]

[This message has been edited by mommyofmatt (edited July 12, 2005).]

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