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Obesity: A supersized problem

By Angie Long

For The Times

It’s not so unusual for someone in their 50s to deal with hypertension or high cholesterol.

But what if you haven’t even made it to your 10th birthday?

Childhood obesity is on the rise in the U.S., nearly tripling in the number of cases over the last 30 years.

Alabama, which is second in the nation in the number of obese adults at 31.2 percent, ranks sixth nationwide with 36.1 percent of its children, ages 10-17, falling into the obese category.

Studies indicate states with high numbers of overweight or obese youth also have high rates of childhood poverty with low scores in measurements of childhood wellbeing.

In Alabama’s Black Belt, low education levels, high unemployment, limited access to healthcare and poor nutrition, combined with the trends of modern society, have created an epidemic of childhood obesity in the region.

Dr. Eunice Bonsi, a professor in the Department of Food and Nutrition Sciences at Tuskegee University, says many low-income Black Belt families, particularly in the current tough economic times, turn to high-calorie, high-fat foods that are less expensive, resulting in excess weight.

“In many poor areas, fast food is more accessible than grocery stores, and the grocery stores that are located in more low-income areas often have a poor selection of fresh produce,” Bonsi said.

“When you combine culture, diet, lack of knowledge and limited resources, you end up with higher levels of obesity in the Black Belt. And heavy adults often raise heavy children,” Bonsi said.

Dr. Robert Keith, nutritionist for the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, says if intervention is not provided to morbidly obese children at a young age, the odds of them growing up to be obese adults are greatly increased, becoming, like poverty itself, a vicious cycle.

“For years we’ve seen our life expectancy increase. However, with the growing number of morbidly obese children who are becoming morbidly obese adults, you will likely see many of them living an average of 7 to 14 years less than individuals with a healthy weight,” said Keith. “And we could very well see our life expectancy decline in Alabama and in the US as a whole if the current trend is not reversed.”

Back to school

Federal guidelines put into effect starting in 2006 mandate only bottled water, milk and 100 percent fruit juices are offered in vending machines in elementary and middle schools, while high school vending machines can also offer no or low-cal beverages up to 25 calories, sports drinks and tea with a limit of 99 calories per serving.

Snacks offered in vending machines must also meet healthier nutritional criteria than in the past.

Under the National School Lunch Program, offerings in the cafeteria for full-price, reduced and free breakfasts and lunches must have no more than 30 percent of their calories from fat, with one-third of the RDA of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories.

Teaching children about good nutritional choices needs to start at a young age, the experts say. With an estimated 80 percent of children of preschool age in 40-hour daycare each week, establishing good eating habits in care could help get them off to a better start.

The Child and Adult Care Food Program can assist those who work in the arena of child daycare to provide the children they serve with nutritious meals and snacks, at no cost to the parents.

“Through CACFP, children in daycare can receive up to two meals and snacks that are healthy and balanced. The daycare providers actually receive training, support and monetary reimbursement for the foods they purchase to serve to the enrolled children,” said Lisa Nimmer, director of the non-profit Healthy Kids, which sponsors licensed family daycare in CACFP.

“It’s a win-win situation. The children receive healthy, nutritious food, the daycares receive reimbursements for meeting CACFP requirements, and this helps keep the costs of childcare down, which helps the parents.”

Nutrition Education classes are also offered to expectant and breastfeeding mothers and parents of infants and preschoolers through The Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC), which provides supplemental food for low-income mothers and children at nutritional risk.

Changing attitudes, habits is key

It won’t be easy, Keith says, but with a concerted, committed effort, parents can go a long way to promote a healthier lifestyle for their children and themselves no matter what the income level.

“We aren’t going to get rid of computers or TVs or video games or fast food; they are part of the fabric of our society. But we can make changes in how we prepare our foods, in portion sizes, in how much TV or computer time we allow our kids,” Keith said.

“Parents need to be engaging in regular exercise with their children. It may be riding bikes or taking brisk walks or shooting hoops or something else. The important thing is getting the kids active doing something they enjoy. It benefits the entire family. And it could help change our children’s future for the better.”