Partnerships help combat alarming obesity increase among youth

By Brian Soergel | Mar 09, 2016

The following article is the sixth in an eight-part series produced by The Beacon on teen issues. Called “Turn Up the Volume,” the series aims to educate our readers while offering information – and hope – to those needing help.

When it comes to body size, especially among women, it’s abundantly clear that media portrayals of healthy and desirable women now include well-proportioned, healthy figures, and not simply skinny-sized models.

Add to this is what many see as the positive image given to plus-size women, heard in songs like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” (“ ’cause every inch of you is perfect, from the bottom to the top”) and the recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover featuring size-16 model Ashley Graham.

But there’s a difference between adults and their body-positive attitudes and teens and elementary and pre-kindergarten kids who may be classified as obese and suffer resulting body-shaming and poor health that makes them susceptible to high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.

Obese kids can become obese adults, where this alarming fact awaits them: Obesity and lack of exercise contribute to between one-quarter and one-third of common cancers in the United States.

Excess weight is associated with increased risk for cancers of the esophagus, colon, rectum, kidney and pancreas, as well as post-menopausal female breast cancer.

In addition to adverse medical conditions, doctors say that children unhappy with their weight and appearance are prone to depression and substance abuse. They may also develop unhealthy eating habits, leading to disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa.

The time to act is now, as childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.

The Snohomish Health District reports that youth obesity in the county increased 18 percent between 2002 and 2010. Even worse: Adult obesity in Snohomish County doubled between 1994 and 2010, and one in three county adults – who are supposed to be role models for children – are now considered clinically obese.

In 2012, the district’s Public Health Advisory Council evaluated more than 80 health indicators for Snohomish County. Priority health issues included obesity.

Ironically, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics says about 30 percent of children and adolescents aged 8-15 in the United States misperceive their weight, with about 81 percent of overweight boys and 71 percent of overweight girls believing they are about the right weight.

Of course, obesity among teens and those younger can be affected by several factors, including race and ethnicity and income status. In 2009, the Snohomish Health District published a report on obesity and discovered that those in Everett and Marysville were, in general, more susceptible to obesity.

It found that children and residents in cities with higher property values – specifically Edmonds, Mill Creek, Mukilteo and Snohomish – had lower obesity rates.

Health experts say that tackling the obesity epidemic – which seems here to stay – is a collaborative effort among family, school, the government and health-care providers.

There are plenty of avenues of help.

Medical care

Just one example of health-care provider help is the children’s clinic at Swedish Edmonds, which treats kids from birth to 19 years old.

“We certainly monitor for obesity between ages 12-19 and provide guidance on healthy weight loss,” said Rupin R. Thakkar, clinic director. “At every check-up, we weigh and measure children and calculate the body mass index. We monitor for any obesity-related health conditions to address, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels.”

Most importantly, Thakker said, staff talks to teens about weight at a level appropriate for their age, prioritizing lifestyle changes and health goals such as eating smart, becoming more physically active, and cutting back on TV time.

Thakker said there are multiple factors to address when trying to decrease weight in a healthy way, and he aims to provide practical advice for parents.

Behavioral measures include regular exercise, limiting TV viewing to less than two hours per day, limiting temptations for unhealthy foods, and providing positive reinforcement.

Dietary measures include making healthy food easily accessible, watching portion sizes, offering sweet treats and juice only for special occasions, and avoiding using food as a reward. “Because it’s not easy to address all of these factors, families often benefit from a referral to a weight loss program designed for kids and teens,” Thakker said. “There are good programs through local hospitals and the YMCA to which we often refer.”

YMCA’s ACT! program

Indeed, the YMCA of Snohomish County takes an active role in improving children’s health, and wants families to understand the role weight perception plays in childhood obesity and ways to combat that through increased physical activity and improved eating habits.

“The best way to find out if your child’s weight might be affecting their health is to visit your pediatrician or primary health care provider,” the YMCA’s Andrea Weiler said.

“Once a family understands any weight-related risks, they can work together to incorporate more physical activity and healthy eating habits into their daily routines.”

To help combat obesity, the YMCA of Snohomish County offers ACT! (Actively Changing Together) classes throughout the year. ACT! – a community-based program for youth who are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight – is a nutrition, activity and self-improvement program for youth ages 8-11 and teens ages 12-14, and their parents/guardians.

A YMCA health and well-being team teaches ways to be active, eat healthy, and create healthy lifestyles for the whole family. To be involved, one adult family member or guardian must participate.

“Today’s families are juggling so many tasks that nutrition and exercise often take a back seat,” Weiler said. “It doesn’t help that fast food and passive entertainment like video games and TV are a big part of our culture. At any age, a sedentary lifestyle can start dragging your child down, physically and emotionally.”

Go to www.ymca-snoco.org/act for more information.

Parents and guardians

Busy families today often don’t have time to make nutritious meals. Fast food is easier. And, too often, cheap fast food and prepackaged meals are the choice of low-income families.

Doctors and nutritionists say parents and guardians must lead by example.

The Snohomish County Health District says children must see healthy behaviors, such as not skipping breakfast. A few other tips:

 

  • Keep your fridge and pantry well-stocked with healthy choices and limit unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks;
  • Don’t encourage food as a reward. Find other alternatives instead; and
  • Try to include your child for physical activity, like hiking or walking the dog together.
  • If you think your child is overweight, you can make an appointment with your doctor, who can look at eating and activity habits and make suggestions on how to make changes. The doctor also may screen for medical conditions that can be associated with obesity.

Snohomish Health District

The Snohomish Health District, a department within county government, does much to educate the public on obesity.

Its 2014 Community Health Improvement Plan concluded that there is a need for coordinated efforts to increase physical activity and improve nutritional quality in Snohomish County for current and future generations. (You can read its recommendations at www.bit.ly/1oIEDnV.)

The district’s director, Gary Goldbaum, is on the steering committee of the Snohomish County Health Leadership Coalition, which includes members from healthcare, education, business and economic development, human services, nonprofit organizations and the faith community.

Part of the coalition’s initiatives is the 5210 campaign, intended to help parents and kids make healthy choices. It’s a partnership with teachers, doctors, child cares and other community organizations to help spread the word and share the same recommendations of four healthy habits that everyone can practice every day.

5: Fruits and vegetables: A diet high in fruits and vegetables provides vitamins and minerals that support growth and development in children. In adults, fruits and vegetables are also associated with lower rates of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and possibly some types of cancer.

2: Hours or less of recreational screen time: Watching television and computer gaming can occupy hours of a child’s day. Screen time is associated with inactivity, increased snacking, and obesity. Too much TV also has been linked to lower reading scores and attention problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 2 not watch any television.

1: Hour or more of physical activity: Regular physical activity is essential for fitness and the prevention of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Children who are raised in families with active lifestyles are also more likely to stay active as adults!

0: Sugary drinks: Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, such as soda and juice, has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. These drinks are associated with childhood obesity, diabetes, and dental cavities.

Gabby Fraley is an epidemiologist for the Snohomish Health District’s Healthy Communities and Assessment group. She crunches much of the data and numbers for the district.

She is all too aware of the obesity crisis.

“It’s familiar all around the country,” she said. “It’s hard to eat healthy and get in that required exercise. More and more kids are sedentary and not going outside to play. I grew up in Mill Creek, and would ride my bike all over. You definitely don’t see kids doing that as much as they were a few years ago. A big fight in obesity is generally getting kids to be more active. An increase in activity can go a long way.”

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