Communities struggle with issue of overweight youth

Husmann Elementary school students sprint the length of the gym during a timed and measured audio program. Gym teacher Aaron Litchfield monitors and tracks student advancement using a program called CATCH testing.
Husmann Elementary school students sprint the length of the gym during a timed and measured audio program. Gym teacher Aaron Litchfield monitors and tracks student advancement using a program called CATCH testing.

Land of the free. Home of the glutton.

America’s aptitude for excess has reached its children, and the consequences threaten to be devastating. Within the state and across the country, the issue has gone from troubling to downright alarming.

The problem of obesity itself is both straightforward and complex – stripped down to an individual level, the solution is simply to eat healthier and increase exercise.

Yet experts know that to turn the trend around, they need to understand and alter how the fitness level of children is influenced by forces such as parents, schools and society.

In the simplest terms, a child with excess body fat is considered overweight or obese. Doctors take several factors into consideration – including weight, age, height and gender – to determine whether a child fits one of those categories. A child well above the normal weight for his or her age and height is considered obese, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In 1980, U.S. children ages 6 to 11 and 12 to 19 held obesity rates of 7 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

By 2010, obesity rates in both age groups had increased to 18 percent, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That study also found that about one-third of children ages 2 to 19 were considered overweight or obese in 2010, compared with about 69 percent of adults.

The effects are serious and widespread, and there might be no better illustration of obesity’s rapid rise and the corresponding detriment to health than an observation in a 2005 study in The New England Journal of Medicine, which found that this generation of children could end up living shorter lives than their parents.

“If you think of the giant advances that we’ve made from a health care perspective, as far as longevity and lifespan,” said Dr. Bob Topp, childhood obesity expert and associate dean of Marquette University’s college of nursing, “that curve is going to flatten out and decline.”

Issue hard to define

Broken down by state, disparities emerge between separate studies, and it’s unclear where Illinois falls. A 2007 study by the National Survey on Children’s Health showed the state carried an obesity rate of 20.7 percent among 10- to 17-year-olds, fourth worst in the country.

But divisions of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found much different results more recently. In 2009, the CDC found 11.9 percent of high schoolers in the state were obese. The center found 14.6 percent of children aged 2 to 5 were obese in 2010.

The CDC’s stats underscore the unpredictability of the survey system, as obesity numbers tend to increase with age.

Meaghan Haak, health promotion coordinator for the McHenry County Department of Health, said that only recently has the education community started to collect data on obesity. She said kids now must have their body mass index, or BMI, tested in kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade, a measure that she believes will lead to more reliable statistics down the road. BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.

Until then, local experts are left mainly guessing about the exact severity of the issue within the county.

“I think, nationally, they’re seeing a plateau,” Haak said. “We’re hoping that ... because we’re using evidence-based programs, we’re going to see the same results in McHenry County.”

Obesity numbers skyrocket in areas of economic disadvantage. In a study conducted by Chicago Public Schools during the 2010-11 school year, 29.2 percent of sixth-graders were obese.

Topp said part of that can be attributed to the fact poor areas generally are “food deserts.”

“There aren’t grocery stores for 4 miles,” Topp said. “The only source of food is [convenience] stores. And C-stores do not stock what we think of as healthy foods.”

Increase has many causes

There are many reasons for childhood obesity’s rise, but experts often start the discussion by noting changes to American society during the past two or three decades.

Fast food and soda – filled with empty calories, and sold cheap and in large quantities – are everywhere and fit neatly into our on-the-go lifestyles. Advertising is heavy for those products, and often geared toward kids – $1.6 billion is spent annually on food advertising to children and adolescents, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

“There’s so much temptation,” said Teresa Wolf, science specialist in Crystal Lake’s District 47. “People are busy, their lives are busy. It’s easy to pull into a fast-food place and get something to eat.”

Topp added that, specifically in middle- to upper-class areas such as McHenry County, families often prepare prepackaged foods even when they don’t go out.

“A lot of families in those communities are two-income families, and they’re not cooking a meal,” he said.

In addition, technology makes it easier than ever to stay entertained without expending much energy. As the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity noted in its 124-page report in 2010, “screen time” is up among children, as kids continue to sit in front of TVs, computers and gaming systems.

One of the major issues, according to Topp, is that the health care system doesn’t know how to treat obesity. It’s a behavioral disease, and requires prevention rather than medication or surgery.

But that fact has led to a “tipping point,” said Beverly Henry, an associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University. There are now many organizations working to find solutions.

But, while Haak believes the trend is starting to plateau, Henry and others are unsure whether the scattered efforts have so far led to tangible results.

It was only 2010 when people stopped questioning whether obesity was a national problem that would dig into the pocketbooks of the entire population, Henry said.

Schools – in a down economy, responsible for two meals a day in many cases – have been as slow as anyone to identify the severity of the issue.

“Schools are kind of busy thinking they can educate those students,” Henry said. “They have to come to the table and say how does having a child with a healthy lifestyle help them have educational success.”

McHenry County schools in the past two or three years have turned more attention toward health programs, and they’re not alone. Local hospitals, the McHenry County Department of Health, the Sage YMCA and others have put forth programs to curb the childhood obesity epidemic in the last few years.

It remains to be seen if and to what degree those efforts will affect local children.

“In the beginning, everyone comes to the table with their own agenda,” Henry said. “It takes a while to form that common goal and that common plan.”

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