Children and teens are getting bigger, faster than any other group. Since the late 80s, the rate of obesity in youth 12 to 17 has tripled from three percent to nine percent. It may sound like just numbers, but for people who follow those numbers, they are jaw dropping. Indeed, they were using the word ‘epidemic’ back when the rate was still just three percent.
It’s more of a problem than most of us are aware. Being overweight, whether a lot or just a little, can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis, some forms of cancer, as well as mental health issues, including low self esteem and depression. Because of rising obesity rates, for the first time in memory, today’s teens have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. They are also three to five times more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke before they reach the age of 65. In all, weight is the health problem – more than smoking or cancer – that our children and we will live most closely with, suffer the most from, and pay the most for.
What parents can't do
Parents can’t change the world, though to some extent, to really make a difference as far as childhood obesity is concerned, that’s what it would take. In Canada, we live within what experts call an obesogenic environment, or one in which we simply have less and less opportunity for physical activity, and ever more access to rich, high-fat, high-energy foods. We drive rather than walk; we eat burgers instead of veggies, more often than not because those are the more ready choices available to us. Just try finding the stairs in a mall or an office building, or try riding a bike to work. Many streets don’t even have sidewalks and, if they do, in the winter they aren’t plowed. The choice to hoof it is, as a result, not one that many people would make twice. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The result is exactly what everyone might expect: bigger people. This is true for young people even more than most. They just don’t live the life that you and I did. When we were young, we would take off for the day on bikes so long as we were home by dinnertime. Parents offering as long a leash today would raise eyebrows if not a call to the authorities. Fewer kids walk to school, ride bikes or just run around the neighbourhood. Of course it’s safety, not neglect or laziness that is at issue. Nevertheless, as a result, apart from typing with their thumbs on their cell phones, kids just aren’t getting any physical activity. It’s a very big deal: today one in four Canadian children are not active enough for optimal growth and development as reported by Health Canada.
Parents can’t change the eating habits of the country either, and it’s too bad that we can’t. Because of the demands of our lifestyles, we eat out more and more. You know that it isn’t great and, at the risk of sounding like a nag, well, it really isn’t great. In many cases, the menu choices available out there are disasterous. You probably don’t know this beyond a hunch because restaurants don’t need to tell is you, but if they did, you’d be horrified. Your average burger, alone, can easily approach half of a kid’s daily caloric needs. (And then we add fries and a drink to their plates!)
What parents can do
It’s a fattening life, in a fattening world. But, through it all, there are things that we can do to help both our children and ourselves; many of which are not nearly as painful or as disruptive as you might think.
Team sports are good, but it’s the unorganized activity – the walking, the playing in the yard – that will really make the difference. When given a choice, choose to walk, use the stairs or anything at all in order to spend less time sitting in front of the tube. If you do, your kids will too, and you’ll all be the better for it.
Do stuff together.
Studies have shown that the more we do together and the better we eat together, the happier and slimmer we’ll be. Focusing on just one child can easily feel like punishment, and it also won’t work. Working on it together, will.
Make small changes.
You can’t change the world in a day, and in fact, you don’t even need to. A little change today can mean a lot. A study released in the journal Pediatrics this past April reported a school system in Philadelphia had a 50 percent reduction in obesity in just two years. Treadmills? Starvation diets? Nope, all they did was remove high-fat snacks and sugary drinks from the schools.
We do know that 26 percent of Canadian children are overweight or obese, but only nine percent of Canadians report that this is the case. That other seventeen percent, for whatever reason, aren’t doing themselves or their children any favours. Being honest about health issues, including weight, can be one of the kindest things that you do.
Cut out the...juice?
One of the first things that paediatrician Dr. Laura Gerber councils her patients to: “Cut out the juice and pop.” We know that pop is bad but for many, juice can seem like a healthy alternative. Certainly it can be, but it’s easy to overdo a good thing. Like pop, it is also high in sugar and, therefore, calories. “Some children are drinking so much pop or juice that they are drinking their entire day’s worth of calories, never mind the food they eat.” One small glass of juice is all a child would need in a day.
A day in the life...
Comparison chart of two days, one active with healthy food choices, one fairly typical for a 9-year-old boy, 70 pounds and about 4’6”.
Healthy living in a lazy world
Eating well and being active, despite our best efforts, has never been as difficult as it is now, and our kids are paying for it.
Peter Nieman, a Calgary paediatric obesity expert, has said that the ‘mantra’ that guides his work is: “The best way to prevent adult obesity is to prevent childhood obesity.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But what he and others also know is that, in Canada, that’s far easier said than done. Despite decades of attempts to get young people moving more and eating better, we continue to move less, to eat worse, and to get bigger and bigger each year. Nearly 60 percent of Canadian adults and 26 percent of children are either overweight or obese.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2008.