Since the early 1970’s when childhood obesity rates were at 5%, obesity among children has more than tripled, reaching 17% in 2008 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alarmingly, children as young as 10 years old are now being diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, a disease previously found only in adults. While family history is a factor in the development of this debilitating disease, the rising prevalence of which seems related to the obesity epidemic in the United States, researchers now believe that its progression can be delayed or possibly even prevented by lifestyle changes that include weight loss, increased activity, and a reduction in consumption of concentrated sweets and fats.
And its not just diabetes that’s associated with obesity. Obese children and teens have also been found to be at risk for asthma, sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease, joint problems, liver disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. In addition to poor physical health, overweight and obese children are often targets of early social discrimination which can lower self-esteem and hinder academic and social functioning.
Enter Michelle Obama with the White House Kitchen Garden and her “Let’s Move!” campaign to fight childhood obesity. Hurray, as well, for the Walt Disney Company, which last month announced plans to restrict junk food and sugary beverage commercials on its television and radio programming as well as its websites aimed at children under 12 years of age. In making its announcement, Disney became the first major media company to ban ads that entice children to consume sugary cereals and beverages and calorie-laden fast foods. Unfortunately, Disney’s new guidelines won’t go into effect until 2015 due to existing advertising agreements, but at least it’s a start.
Disney’s guidelines will be aligned with enhanced federal standards designed to promote the reduction of sugar, sodium and saturated fat and to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. These guidelines are just part of a broader program of childhood health initiatives that will play out across Disney’s many platforms. The sodium content of about 12 million children’s meals sold annually at Disney’s theme parks will be reduced by 25 percent, and the policy will also be promoted in grocery stores where “Mickey Checks” logos will appear on Disney-licensed foods meeting Disney’s nutritional guidelines.
The announcement of Disney’s new policy was warmly welcomed as a “game changer” by First Lady Michelle Obama. She expressed hope that every major media company will follow Disney’s lead. Attending a press conference where the changes to Disney’s nutrition guideline policy were announced, Mrs. Obama noted that “as parents, we know that whatever is on TV is what our kids are going to want.” Like so many of us, she recalled having her children beg at the grocery store for advertised foods that are high in calories and sugar, but low in nutrition, instead of healthy alternatives.
While Disney’s recent actions as well as the White House initiatives are certainly welcome, there is much more that we, as parents and grandparents, can do to help educate ourselves and our children about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. The Federal Trade Commission estimated that, in 2006 alone, food, beverage and fast food restaurants spent more than $1.6 billion to promote their products to young people. We can help counteract this influence by teaching our children how to read and understand food labels. On a recent grocery store excursion with my 5 year old granddaughter, we spent about 20 minutes in the cereal aisle looking at the various choices, many of which she had seen advertised on television, and reading the sugar content on each box. While not understanding the whole process, she learned that the cereal containing 1 gram of sugar per serving was much healthier than the one with 19 grams of sugar.
Learn how to determine your child’s BMI, and more about health problems associated with childhood obesity and how to help your children choose healthy foods at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. You can also find additional helpful information at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) website.