Chubby cheeks. Pudgy legs. Buddha bellies. Parents of newborns often brag about their child’s height and weight percentiles after a visit to their pediatrician. How big and strong he’ll be! But what happens when big numbers on the scale no longer translate to success in parenting? In the United States, one in three kids is overweight or obese, which is why First Lady Michelle Obama has initiated Let’s Move, a nationwide campaign to tackle childhood obesity.
According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years. According to Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell, we need to ensure that our children have the opportunity to lead long, successful, and healthy lives. “Here in Virginia, right now more than 260,000 children between the ages of 10 and 17 are obese or overweight. Virginia schools are seeing that as many as 15 percent of children entering kindergarten are now overweight. That is tragic,” says McDonnell. If the trend continues, it could mean, for the first time in our history, American children may face a shorter expected lifespan than their parents.
Many factors contribute to this crisis.
In an effort to make life easier, busy families are cooking less and eating out more. With fast food eateries everywhere, cheap yet high-calorie meals have become the norm, not the exception.
McDonnell, who kicked off the New Year at the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth’s inaugural Youth Day, explains, “Living in such a prosperous land with so much innovation, we embrace a culture of convenience. We live in a society of microwaves, fast food and pre-cooked meals full of calories and preservatives. And while most of us can remember what it was like not to have these conveniences, our children don’t.”
Combine these consequences of convenience with less time actively spent playing outside and more time watching TV, playing video games, and sitting at the computer, it means fewer opportunities to burn calories.
At my daughter’s New Kent elementary school, physical education is offered once a week for 45 minutes, when the surgeon general recommends at least 60 minutes of moderate physical activity a day. This, despite the fact that, as McDonnell explains, “Healthy children perform better academically.” Is all this getting lost in the scramble to meet mandated education requirements?
Faith Hecht, youth programs coordinator of Richmond’s Sports Backers, sees a connection. “Cash-strapped schools are cutting PE programs, which means fewer teachers, which means fewer times to see each class, not to mention the push on focusing on achieving well on standardized testing because of No Child Left Behind,” Hecht says.
Pile an average of three snacks a day on top of three regular meals and it should explain why the childhood obesity rate has risen to more than 16 percent. Think about it. Practically every event a child attends these days has food involved. Is it really necessary to have a snack at story time? Does the baseball coach have to pass out candy for good effort? And why do we need vending machines, loaded with sugary snacks and drinks, at our schools when the day only lasts an average of six hours?
All good questions. But where can we go for answers?
“This is a problem that requires the involvement of educators, health-care providers, legislators, businesses, and most, importantly, parents,” says McDonnell. “That is one of the reasons I am so excited to be chairing the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth’s upcoming Weight of the State Conference this month. For the first time, we will be bringing together many of these stakeholders to discuss this in a statewide forum to begin addressing the problem.”
Sports Backers’ Hecht, a mother of two, agrees that we need a consensus to take on the issue. “There are plenty of small organizations working to help in this cause, just getting the information out on what help is available. We have strong successful campaigns that tell school kids not to smoke and not experiment with drugs. That is drilled into kids all the way through elementary schools. What if we had a nationwide program, like D.A.R.E, that was focused on just telling kids how to exercise more and eat better?” Hecht asks.
If we did, a Chester mom I know might not have found herself in a predicament regarding her son’s weight. Noticing an increase in his size, she scheduled a visit with his pediatrician. The doctor referred her to a nutritionist for assistance, but since her son didn’t have diabetes yet, the insurance company wouldn’t cover the visit.
”What choice did I have? Give him another piece of cake so he’d become diabetic?”
She went ahead with the expensive visit and she’s glad she did. “We were eating way more than we were supposed to be.” The portion size tips she received from the nutritionist are helping to get her son’s weight under control.
With children spending so much time at school, change clearly needs to happen there as well, but as Hecht points out “if the healthier behaviors are not modeled at home by parents, I don’t think there is much chance for success.”
Remember the days when your child’s first step was cause for celebration, when a face covered in carrots was a reason to take a picture? Why not cheer them on at their first 10k? Or praise them for learning how to make a healthy meal? Creating new milestones, like these, just might save their lives.