Children and obesity

Taking Steps to Reverse this Growing Epidemic

If most parents knew there was an epidemic that could affect the health of their child, these moms and dads would do everything in their power to keep their children safe. Parents ensure their children are vaccinated against diseases, often keep them home at the first signs of a cold, and they watch over their children to prevent any bad circumstances from befalling them.

However, despite the care parents take to keep their children safe, many children are falling victim to a national epidemic: obesity. This severe health problem is sweeping the nation — and Polk County is not exempt.

We are seeing more overweight children locally,” says Gwen Rogerson, MPH, BSN, RN, CDE, the diabetes coordinator for Lakeland Regional Medical Center. “We are observing a great increase in children being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, which was unheard of five to 10 years ago. We no longer assume a child has type 1 diabetes. Childhood obesity plays a huge part in the increase of type 2 diabetes in children locally, as well as nationally.”



First Lady Michelle Obama has made tackling childhood obesity one of her missions during her husband’s time in office. She has helped to start “Let’s Move,” a comprehensive federal initiative dedicated to solving the problem of obesity within a generation so that children born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams.

In Florida, the Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives Act was signed by Gov. Rick Scott on June 23. The Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives Act will consolidate all state-level school food and nutrition programs under one state agency, increasing the capability of these programs to collectively make a positive impact on the well-being of Florida’s children. This act will empower the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to educate students on health and nutrition and ensure they have access to the healthy and nutritious products abundant throughout the state.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam says, “I applaud Governor Scott for embracing our collective effort to improve nutrition in school cafeterias across the State of Florida. Together, we’re going to direct more of Florida’s fresh fruits and vegetables to Florida students. We’re going to help Florida’s children build healthier eating habits. And we’re going to take on the challenges of the childhood obesity epidemic [. . .] With the Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives Act signed into law, we’re putting the children of Florida and their health first.”


According to the Center for Disease Control, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 19.6 percent in 2008. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years increased from 5.0 percent to 18.1 percent.

Obesity is the result of caloric imbalance (too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed) and is mediated by genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors.

Obesity is an epidemic, and Polk County is the most obese county in Florida,” says Dr. Gordon J. Rafool, Gessler Clinic family practice physician and a Polk County Medical Association member. “Approximately 31 to 34 percent of Polk County residents are obese, and this statistic doesn’t include those who are overweight.”

Rafool says obesity is measured by one’s body mass index (BMI). A BMI of 25 to 29.9 percent is considered overweight, 30 to 39.9 percent is considered obese, and more than 40 percent is categorized as super obese.

Polk County has a big problem with obesity,” Rafool continues. “The No. 1 problem is our society fosters a sedentary lifestyle with the electronic games and devices. Twenty-five years ago, children would go outside to play, but now parents are afraid to let their children play outside because they fear someone will kidnap them. Years ago, you had to get up to change the channel on the TV. Today, you can even do that sitting down.”

Rogerson agrees and adds, “Personally, I feel childhood obesity prevalence today is related to two major causes: more sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy food choices. Unfortunately, unhealthy food choices are often cheaper and easier.”

Rogerson lists examples of a sedentary lifestyle as sitting and playing computer games, lack of physical education classes at school, sitting and watching TV for hours. She adds that unhealthy food choices can include fast food chains, larger portions, vending machines and unhealthy snacks.



Having an obese child doesn’t just mean having to buy larger-sized clothes. Childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term health impacts.

There are physical risks as well as psychological risks,” Rogerson points out. “Physical risks include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, joint problems, elevated blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, sleep disruptions and breathing problems. Psychological risks include depression, low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence.”

Many obese children and teens might not be aware they have any of these life-threatening health problems.

The risk of high blood pressure (also called hypertension) increases in obese young adults,” says Cynthia L. Ritter, CCRN, MSN, ARNP-C, with Winter Haven Hospital’s Bostick Heart Center. “Close to 19 percent of young adults may have high blood pressure, and the prevalence of this disease in young adults is on the rise. Despite this condition’s strong link to heart attack and stroke risk only half of them are aware of it.”



Some ways parents can persuade their children to lead healthier lifestyles is by encouraging them to eat healthy without criticizing. When grocery shopping, buy fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed foods. Have healthy snack choices available. Cook at home more and eat out less. If you must eat out a lot, look up nutritional facts about the food you are eating to help make better choices. Encourage exercise. Remember walking is free.Reward them with something other than food when they do something good. Encourage them to share with you or someone else their feelings.

Rogerson says it is most important to “be supportive and do activities with them that are fun.”

Jennifer Patzkowsky, MS, RD/LDN, a registered dietitian with the Polk County School Board Wellness Program offers some advice for parents looking to prevent their children from succumbing to the obesity trend.

Everyone needs to be involved,” she says. “Parents and educators need to be role models. Pediatricians and other health professionals need to be more proactive and address health risks.”

One of the key complaints from parents about helping their family eat healthier is the added time and cost.

Healthy food doesn’t have to be expensive,” Patzkowsky says, offering tips such as buying fresh fruits and vegetables in season, and purchasing large quantities and freezing the extra (See the sidebar). “Our nation is realizing that prevention is the way to go. It is important to teach children from a young age to eat healthy and get regular physical activity.



Here are some tips to save money when planning healthy meals:

People always say that produce is expensive. So buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season.

If the produce you want isn’t in-season, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables can cost less. They are just as nutritious as fresh because they are packaged at their peak of freshness.

Meats can be expensive, but there are ways to save on protein too. Buy a whole chicken and cut it up instead of skinless boneless chicken breasts.

Also think about meat as a side dish, not the main entree. Divide your plate into three sections with 1/2 vegetables, 1/4 meat or protein, and 1/4 starch. Consider other protein options such as beans and eggs, which cost much less than meat.

For grains, stick with the plain brown rice instead of boxed rice mixes. Buy big containers of quick-cooking oats instead of individual packets of instant oatmeal.

And it’s a good idea to buy bread, English muffins or whole wheat tortillas when they’re on sale and freeze any extras that you’re not going to use before the expiration date.

Instead of buying cookies, chips and other high calorie snacks, have nuts or fruits and vegetables.





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