Fighting childhood obesity

Tue, 04/25/2006 - 1:34pm
By: The Citizen

The National Institutes of Health has declared childhood obesity an epidemic. The number of children who are overweight has doubled in the last two to three decades and statistics show that one child in five is overweight.

Obesity in children and adolescents is associated with an increase in the incidence of weight-related health problems such as type 2 diabetes, as well high cholesterol and blood pressure levels, which are risk factors for heart disease. Overweight children also suffer orthopedic problems, liver disease and asthma at higher rates.

“Obesity in children is a serious disease that requires medical care,” says Dr. Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg, director of the Pediatric Weight Management Clinic at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, Fairview in Minneapolis.
There is no single cause for childhood obesity. Genetics, lack of activity and bad eating habits all play a part. “Obesity has a genetic basis with an environmental trigger,” explains Schwarzenberg. “We are genetically predisposed to eat more than we need, and with easy access to fatty and sugary food, it’s easy for kids to learn bad eating habits.”

The multidisciplinary program at the Clinic helps overweight children and their families deal with the health problems associated with obesity as well as achieve healthier lifestyles. It addresses the medical, nutritional and emotional issues associated with being overweight.

“We evaluate the child, determine health risks, and develop a management plan to help the child and their family slowly adopt a healthier lifestyle,” say Schwarzenberg. The team of experts includes doctors, psychologists and dieticians. “Where it’s warranted, we use medication and bariatric surgery to treat medical problems, while the psychologists work on behavior modifications and the dieticians educate the child and the family on healthy eating choices,” she says.

Schwarzenberg stresses that children are not put on a diet - rather, they learn new, healthy habits that will last a lifetime. “We’re not doing this solely for cosmetic reasons,” she says. “We are treating a chronic lifelong disease.”

Parents need to set a good example for their kids, starting with eating right. Although parents might be overwhelmed at the thought of putting together a balanced meal while dealing with work and busy family schedules, it’s not as hard as it might seem, Schwarzenberg says. “All you need is a loaf of bread and some deli turkey for a healthy sandwich. Add some apple slices to the plate, and you’re doing a pretty good job.” Grocery stores are filled with easy options, from salad in a bag to rotisserie chicken.
When asked for tips on how to help children eat right and lead a healthy lifestyle, Schwarzenberg offers these four simple tips:

1. Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. “This isn’t as hard as it sounds when you realize that one serving equals about a handful,” says Schwarzenberg.

2. Limit kids’ screen time to two hours a day total. That includes TV, video games, and computer time.

3. Help your child get one hour of physical activity a day. That can be as easy as a family walk around the neighborhood after dinner.

4. Don’t give kids pop or fruit juice. “Many people are surprised by how much sugar is in fruit juice,” says Schwarzenberg. “You’re much better off with a piece of fruit instead.”

For more information on the Pediatric Weight Management Clinic at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, contact

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