Today, 21% of Ohio’s third graders are obese. Another 17% are at risk of becoming obese soon. This, unfortunately, is not unusual – this is the case all over the country. The number of overweight children nationwide has tripled between 1980 and 2002.
To develop the Ohio statistics, 14,000 children from 387 schools were surveyed during the 2004-2005 school year to determine their Body Mass Index. The Ohio Department of Health issued a report suggesting that schools, families and communities should encourage kids to make better food choices and to increase physical activity in response to these numbers.
Although we all agree that this is the right thing to do, we have much work to do to undo the poor nutritional status and lifestyle habits of most kids. 1/3 of children who are babies through 6 years of age live in a household in which the television is turned on almost constantly. One child in 5 has a TV set in his or her room. 8 out of 10 children younger than 6 watch television daily for an average of two hours.
Researchers from Kaiser asked parents why they and their children watch TV as much as they do. They were surprised to find that parents were encouraging the use of television, video games and computers. Parents stated in interviews that TV taught their kids how to share, recite the ABC’s and other valuable skills, skills that used to be taught by parents and in preschools. TV also allows parents to do things like cook, take a shower, and essentially provides baby sitting service. Parents also reported using television as a reward and a way to wind down before bedtime. I guess reading to kids before they fall asleep is way too much work. When asked about televisions in the kids’ rooms, the reason cited most often was that when children have their own sets, it freed up televisions in other rooms for adults to watch.
The naive attitude of the parents interviewed was almost incomprehensible. “It’s just background noise,” said one mom. Another stated in reference to her preschooler watching CSI Crime Scene Investigation with her, “It’s something gory, but it doesn’t seem to bother her.”
Certainly television is not the only culprit in our kids’ health problems, but it contributes and it seems that the problem is increasing rather than decreasing over time.
We’re running out of time to address this problem properly. In addition to all of the health problems associated with children being overweight, there are self-esteem and sociological issues to consider as well.
Yale University conducted a survey in which ½ of respondents said they would be willing to give up a year of their life rather than be fat. 15% said they would trade a decade of their lives not to be fat. 5% said they would rather lose a limb and 4% said they would rather go blind than to gain weight. 30% said they would rather be divorced, 25% said they would prefer to not be able to have children, and 14% said they would rather be an alcoholic than to be overweight.
Marlene Schwartz and a team of researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale conducted the research. They noted that regardless of the weight of the participants, they almost all had an anti-fat bias.
Schwartz commented that “One of the things that seems different about obesity bias as opposed to racial bias or ethnic bias, is there isn’t what they call ‘in-group favoritism.’ People in the group don’t even feel good about being in the group.”
Respondents also associated obese people with negative personality traits, such as laziness. When asked about overweight children, 10% of respondents said they would rather have an anorexic child, and 8% would rather have one with learning disabilities rather than a weight problem. The researchers concluded that parents who have children with these problems are viewed more sympathetically than parents of overweight children.
Almost all overweight people suffer from poor self esteem, discrimination of some sort, and other problems that more normal weight people deal with a lot less. But children really cannot do anything about this without the help of adults in their lives.
I see a steady stream of overweight children weekly, and have become quite direct with parents about their responsibility in dealing with the issue. Many of them tell me that they continue to have conversations with their obese child about making better food choices. The reality, however, is that you can’t screw a 35 year old head on 10 year old shoulders. Negotiating with children, or trying to get them to take full responsibility for their health status is not realistic and will not work. Parents must be parents and eliminate the bad choices and do everything necessary in order to help these kids become lean and healthy.