Feature Articles: Children
Number of Overweight Youth a Concern
Linda Rellergert, Nutrition Specialist in St. Charles County, University of Missouri Extension
The number of overweight children in the United States continues
to climb sharply, according to initial results of the latest
National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)
conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The
most recent study shows that 13 percent of children ages 6 to 11
are overweight. This is up from 11 percent in the previous
NHANES survey in 1994. The number of overweight teens ages 12 to
19 increased from 11 to 14 percent at the same time. Researchers
note that the percent of overweight children remained much the
same from the 1960s to 1980 at 5 percent.
Frances Berg writes in her book Children and Teens Afraid
to Eat that the causes of this increase are many and
complex. Here are just a few.
Children today are less active than in earlier times. Few
children walk or ride bikes to school or play outside when
school is over. Several studies have shown that the more time
spent watching television, the greater the risk of becoming
overweight. In addition to being less active itself, TV watching
also seems to lead to more snacking and to actually reduce
metabolism. This means fewer calories are used when watching TV
than when engaged in other sedentary activities like working on
The kinds and amounts of foods eaten has also changed over
the decades. Snacks now are more likely to be soft drinks,
chips, candy and pastries, instead of fruits, vegetables, grains
and milk as in years past. Children are getting less calcium but
more calories and fat. A recent study in North Carolina found
that the number of times kids are eating between meals is going
up, and that children are eating more of their day’s food as
snacks than ever before.
Another factor cited by Berg and others is a distortion of
normal eating. If parents, caregivers and others encourage
children to eat when they are not hungry or to stop eating
before they are satisfied, children lose their innate ability to
eat normally. Children are being raised in a culture where
dieting is common. Children learn how and what to eat from the
adults around them. Many have learned the lessons of
restrictive, externally controlled eating that characterizes
diets too well.
Following are some trends and research regarding the number
of overweight youth in this country...
In general, babies weigh more at birth than in decades past. Women are encouraged to gain more weight during pregnancy than they used to be to prevent problems associated with low birth weights. Unfortunately, higher birth weights are linked to a greater chance of obesity later in life. Smaller weights for newborns may be normal for non-white mothers. As these women have been encouraged to gain more weight during pregnancy and have bigger babies, they and their children have developed weight problems.
However, many young pregnant teens do not eat well enough to
keep up their own growth as well as their baby’s. These babies
tend to be very small, high-risk and often premature. Adequate
weight gain during pregnancy is important but may not be the
same for every ethnic or age group.
People’s ethnicity and genes play a big part in how big and how fast they grow. The tendency to gain weight easily may be partially explained by the “thrifty gene” theory. According to this theory, certain genetic traits helped people survive bad times when food was scarce. People with this trait were more likely to survive and pass the trait on to their children. People whose ancestors came from areas where food was more plentiful may have lost this trait and are not as likely to become large.
Whether or not this theory turns out to be correct, some cultures value plumpness more than others. A fat baby is thought to be a healthy baby, or at least to come from a family that has enough food. Decades ago, this was true for mainstream American culture too. It seems that as humans we place greater value on that which is harder to attain.
Unfortunately, there is evidence that being overweight during childhood may affect health late in life. These health risks include diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Additionally, the social stigma of being large may also push kids (and adults!) to use dangerous weight loss methods or to develop eating disorders. Some experts feel the greatest burden for overweight children may be the emotional and psychological damage they may suffer because of the way our culture treats large people.
What to do?
Frances Berg, author of Children and Teens Afraid to Eat has these guidelines for parents. All of us would benefit by applying them whether or not we have children.
- Be active with your children. Have fun in a variety of activities.
- Promote communication and sharing of feelings.
- Teach positive self-talk. Praise and support each other.
- Promote self-acceptance, self-respect, respect for others and appreciation of diversity.
- Promote normal eating. Avoid dieting.
- Eat family meals together at least once each day, if possible, and with the television off.
- Be a role model of normal, healthy eating and lifestyle.
- Avoid focusing on weight or shape, or talking about it in a negative way — every body is a good body.
- Help children develop interests and skills that lead to success, pleasure and fulfillment, apart from appearance.
- Encourage friendships with caring neighbors and other
You can find additional information on how to help children
develop positive attitudes toward their bodies as well as good
health habits on these Web sites:
Last update: Tuesday, May 05, 2009