BETA

Healthy children

400% increase in obese children in United States

Amid aggressive marketing of unhealthy foods and an increasingly sedentary environment, there are more overweight children in the United States today than at any other time in history, said one BYU researcher.

As shown by Carter Matheson, 8. eating healthily can help prevent lifestyle-related diseases in children.
As shown by Carter Matheson, 8. eating healthily can help prevent lifestyle-related diseases in children. Photo: Photo by Sarah Jane Weaver

In fact, in the last 20 years — as computer games and fast food super-sizing became popular — the number of obese children in the U.S. has risen from 4 to 16 percent, a 400 percent increase, said Steve Aldana, a professor of health and human performance.

"We have unhealthy kids now, compared with other countries and compared with the past, because our children's environments have changed," he said.

"The single biggest problem with our children: They are mimicking their parents," he continued. "If the adults overeat, the kids are going to overeat."

After spending much of his career researching health and obesity and studying others' research on the topics, Brother Aldana now fears that if trends continue, today's youth may become the first generation in the past century to live a shorter life span than their parents. Without a healthy diet and exercise, the average person will die 10 to 20 years prematurely, he said.

Brother Aldana, the author of The Culprit & The Cure, now hopes to raise awareness that will help the population currently at risk for lifestyle-related diseases — and their children.

"It is not that these kids are choosing poorly," he said, noting that children need to eat five fruits and vegetables each day and exercise regularly. "It is just that these kids are given unhealthy options."

Brother Aldana said people often assume genetics is impacting the disturbing trend of increased childhood obesity. But "it has nothing to do with genetics," he said, noting that the gene pool hasn't changed in 20 years, a time span not long enough for children to grow up and have children of their own. "It has everything to do with environment. We have sedentary kids" who now have access "to large quantities of food."

He points out that society uses food to control or reward children. Food is an essential part of birthday parties, Primary parties and even youth sporting events, where children typically leave the game with a "treat."

"Kids are for the most part products of their environments," he said. "If we have overweight, unhealthy children who are eating poor food, it is because someone is buying these foods and bringing them home."

Sarah and Carter Matheson, children of Alan and Laura Matheson of Sandy, Utah, on swing set, demonstrate outdoor activity that parents can encourage.
Sarah and Carter Matheson, children of Alan and Laura Matheson of Sandy, Utah, on swing set, demonstrate outdoor activity that parents can encourage. Photo: Photo by Sarah Jane Weaver

Brother Aldana said there is nothing wrong with birthday cake or occasional fast food. But parents need to look at their lifestyle, he added. The average child eats fast food once a week or more, he said.

Brother Aldana also notes that children today are bombarded with "very, very aggressive marketing" from food companies. Fast food, cereal and candy companies, for example, all market to children, using kid-friendly campaign slogans and providing toys or other prizes with their products.

Furthermore, Brother Aldana said, there are elementary schools, as well as junior high, middle, and high schools that have candy machines and have eliminated physical education and recess.

That alone is disturbing, he said, because there are more people who have Type 2 diabetes now in the state of Utah and in the Church than at any other time in history. In addition, for the first time, children and teens are also developing the disease. Type 2 diabetes is a good indicator of lifestyle, he said, because research shows it can be avoided 91 percent of the time with a healthy diet and exercise.

Developing healthy children has to start with the child's immediate support system, he said.

The problem, he admits, is complex. "We have a culture of food, especially in the Church. We are not allowed to do a lot of things. One of the things we can do? We can eat."

He urges Church members to not go overboard, to not make unhealthy food a part of every celebration/youth activity. For example, he said, donuts or other treats don't need to always be a part of Young Men or Young Women activities. And the Boy Scouts, he added, can meet without root beer floats.

Parents can also do things at home, he said. Have healthy snacks around the house and encourage physical exercise. Give children the opportunity to ride bikes or participate in other physical activities in addition to playing computer or video games.

Sarah Matheson, 10, of Sandy, Utah, is among a generatinon of children growing up in a culture of fast foods and little exercise.
Sarah Matheson, 10, of Sandy, Utah, is among a generatinon of children growing up in a culture of fast foods and little exercise. Photo: Photo by Sara Jane Weaver

He said there are four basic things people can do to curb childhood obesity.

  1. Raise awareness. "We are tying to create awareness about this," he said, noting newspaper articles on the subject are a good start.
  1. Motivate people by "telling them the data that they don't want to hear."
  1. Build skills. Many people don't know how to change behaviors, such as buying healthy food and preparing healthy meals.
  1. Improve the environment. Lobby to take vending machines out of the schools that have them, and to restore daily physical education and recess to the schools that don't, he suggests.

"That takes school boards and cities," he said. "That is going to take everyone. . . . This is a really tough thing to do. It is a little bit overwhelming but we have to start."

Eating healthily and exercising will help Sarah Matheson, 10, Sandy, Utah, avoid the pitfalls of childhood obesity that now affect 16 percent of American youth.
Eating healthily and exercising will help Sarah Matheson, 10, Sandy, Utah, avoid the pitfalls of childhood obesity that now affect 16 percent of American youth. Photo: Photo by Sarah Jane Weaver

E-mail to: [email protected]