Have you weighed your child lately? Last year, when Newsweek named Richmond the second fattest city in America, it was shocking to associate our beloved River City with a serious health epidemic. Yet obesity is increasing at an alarming rate – in Richmond and in cities across the country. Studies have shown Virginia’s obesity rate climbing 154 percent from 1995 to 2004. Obesity affects not only adults, but also children, with about one in three kids overweight or obese.
What’s even more troubling is that heart disease is now leaving its mark on overweight or obese children. Kids are diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, and clogged arteries – conditions that until recently were only prevalent in adults. Once called adult onset diabetes, type 2 diabetes is now affecting 45 percent of overweight teens. These same children also have a 40 percent increased risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack later in life.
Prevention of childhood obesity begins with parents. Most of us know the logical answers: Give our kids a well-balanced diet and opportunities for daily exercise. It’s not as easy as it sounds. When both parents often are overworked and children are overscheduled in after-school activities, we look for ways to eat on the run. We dine out more, and the food we have for ourselves and for our children is not always optimal. Meals can turn into a quick fix of large portions, full of empty calories.
As a Richmond area cardiologist treating cardiovascular diseases, I see the struggles that overweight patients encounter. Along with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, and type 2 diabetes, many have low self-esteem and sometimes suffer from depression. It’s no wonder that their struggles can transfer to their children, as well.
We all can do better to help our kids stay healthy. We may think it’s okay if we, or our children, are slightly overweight. We may think we’re giving our family healthy choices, but is this enough?
If you are concerned about your child’s weight, you may consult your pediatrician or family physician. Health care providers can order lab tests, including advanced lipid lipoprotein testing, to check for warning signs of pre-diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They also can screen for other conditions, such as thyroid or endocrine disorders, which might be contributing to or causing childhood obesity.
In Richmond, the city trying to shed that dubious moniker awarded it by Newsweek, programs exist to help families live healthier active lives. Movin’ Mania is a local initiative sponsored by Bon Secours Virginia Health System and community partners to educate, empower, and encourage children and families. Visit movinmania.com for interactive games promoting health and fitness, where kids can earn points towards prizes. The parents’ section offers healthy recipes and community activities and events.
There are other steps as well. Parents can limit screen time, including television, computer, video games, and mobile devices, to two hours a day. In place of this, encourage kids to get active. The 10,000-steps-aday strategy is one I recommend for adult patients. This is useful for overweight children, too. Pedometers, which are available at major retailers, can easily track every step your child takes. Before you know it, kids will be checking eagerly to see just how far they can go in a single day.
Ensuring a healthy lifestyle for your child is an important first step in obesity prevention. When families embark on this journey to wellness together, the odds of success increase exponentially.