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Childhood obesity: It's time to take action

By: Margaret Sabin
February 18, 2018 Updated: February 18, 2018 at 4:05 am
photo - Margaret Sabin
Margaret Sabin 

It's time - past time, really - to launch broad-based, serious conversations about the health of our children.

We as a community must become passionate about creating a culture of health for our kids: one of constant exposure to a healthy lifestyle as opposed to health-damaging alternatives; one of encouragement, not judgment.

Over the course of my 37-year health care career, I have seen a dramatic rise in the incidence of lifestyle-related behaviors - too much of the wrong foods and too little activity - shortening the lives and diminishing the quality of lives of children and adolescents. Obesity rates have more than tripled among children since the 1980s. And the companion to that unfortunate statistic is we're treating adolescents and young people for diabetes, heart disease and other medical issues that in previous decades mostly occurred in 50-year-olds and older.

Parents, institutions and policymakers really must take notice and take action.

The facts are irrefutable and distressing:

About 17 percent of children and adolescents in this country are obese. That's 12.7 million children and adolescents. Of that number, about 4.3 percent of kids 6 to 11 and 9.1 percent 12 to 19 are considered to have extreme obesity. And, perhaps especially worrisome, given what seems to be the trajectory with each passing year, about 2 percent of children 2 to 6 are considered to already have extreme obesity.

Moreover, several million more children are overweight, and most of them could become obese.

Not long ago, researchers and experts concerned themselves only with obesity in children, and not so much with children being overweight. But that is shifting. Recent research has shown that 80 percent of overweight children and adolescents will become overweight or obese adults. These children are likely to suffer early high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and death. They are more likely in their childhood and teen years to perform poorly in school and suffer bullying and depression, according to several studies.

They are also more likely to, as adults, develop kidney disease, joint problems, blindness, chronic pain, emotional problems, and amputations, according to many studies.

What we're seeing is a major public health shift into something dramatic and troubling: millions more children getting sicker, growing up to be sicker adults who require billions of dollars of medical interventions that will merely keep them alive, not alter the inevitable course.

I worry about population health; that's my background. But I worry equally about the individuals - all those children and teenagers - who are suffering the impacts of this awful societal turn of events. They can't learn as well, and they must contend with harsh biases if they do not receive thoughtful attention and guidance to develop new lifestyle patterns.

Addressing this starts with parents, of course. Many factors can contribute to children becoming overweight, but parents should focus on creating a family life that emphasizes physical activity and healthful eating habits.

The family should limit the amount of time in sedentary activities such as watching television or playing video games.

If children in the family are overweight, gradually increasing the family's physical activity and making changes to meal planning will make a difference.

A child's appropriate weight is something that is established during a conversation between parents and a doctor. Genes and some medical problems can increase a child's chances of becoming obese, so these are matters that must be taken into account. Physicians at Penrose-St. Francis regularly provide information about approaches for families for whom there is a risk of lifestyle-related diseases so they can start down the road to solid lifelong habits.

Clearly, the parents are key. And yet, there's a broader conversation that must take place. What I hope to see our society march toward is embracing "healthy" as a lifestyle and also prevention of obesity as a fundamental value we share.

Such thinking is something of a low-level hum you'll hear from some devoted families and along the edges of public discourse.

I'd like to see it become a rallying cry, something strong and fervent as interest and determination solidify. We now know how detrimental this obesity trend is to children and young people, and ultimately, what will almost certainly happen when they are adults.

American voters responding to a recent public opinion survey rated obesity as a top health concern in this country. We must let public officials know we want to address this in all age groups, but especially in our young people.

Our elected officials should press insurance carriers to cover various activities related to prevention of obesity, not just the various medicines and surgeries required after years of living with the burden of being overweight. That would include clinics that provide team-based approaches, like nutritionists, mental health therapists, pediatric specialists, and fitness experts who work in concert.

Moreover, medical schools should be providing more instructional emphasis on childhood obesity risks, how to talk effectively with defensive parents about overweight children, and best practices.

Our greatest honor and our greatest responsibility as human beings is to bring forth and make successful the next generation. And yet, many experts are predicting that the children of today could be the first generation in this nation's history to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents.

We cannot let this happen.

The most successful approaches are generally broad-based, localized, efforts. We all - community members and leaders, schools, health care providers, service groups, community development organizations, church groups, and others - must come together to build strategies and devise a long-term commitment that will work here, for us.

If we all put our heads and hearts together, we can leverage our considerable capabilities to develop ways and means to address this disturbing trajectory.


Margaret Sabin is the president and CEO of Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.

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