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VOL. 131 | NO. 93 | Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Adults Not Helping Childhood Obesity Turn Corner Very Quickly

By Don Wade

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Richard Hamburg does not pretend that there is a cure-all for childhood obesity, that just a little exercise will make things all better, that just a few policy changes or improvements in school lunch programs (which is happening), or a reduction of “food deserts” will solve the whole problem.

“If ever there was an issue that did not have a silver bullet, this is it,” said Hamburg, interim president and CEO of Trust for America’s Health.

And yet when Hamburg gives the Thursday, May 12, keynote address during Common Table Health Alliance’s annual meeting, he will do so with cautious optimism. The title of his address: “Childhood Obesity: Have We Turned the Corner?”

The luncheon runs from 11:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Racquet Club of Memphis. To purchase tickets, visit www.commontablehealth.org or call 901-684-6011, ext. 211.

While Hamburg can’t say that corner has been turned, he can say the turn is in progress. Childhood obesity has a way of evolving into adult obesity and the numbers at the national, state and local level indicate there is still a mighty challenge ahead.

Almost 35 percent of U.S. adults (or 78.6 million) are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And about 33 percent of youth ages 2-19 qualify as overweight or obese.

But Hamburg says data from 2014 showed obesity was declining among children ages 2-5 in places where there were active policies and programs working to fight obesity.

Yet other data from 2011 among youth age 10-17 showed several Southern states, including Tennessee and Mississippi, had obesity rates of more than 20 percent. By comparison, Oregon was at 9.9 percent for the same age group.

“Historically, states with the highest obesity rates are in the South,” Hamburg said.

The list of health problems for which overweight and obese children are at risk is long: heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological issues. Childhood obesity also means being at increased risk for adult obesity and associated problems: heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis.

There are many factors contributing to childhood obesity and they start early. Low birth-weight babies are more likely to have health problems, including obesity. Breastfeeding has been shown to give infants a healthier start on life, but Shelby County Division of Health Services director Alisa Haushalter notes that programs promoting breastfeeding are only as good as the support system in place for moms in real-world settings.

“You can encourage moms to breastfeed,” Haushalter said, “but if, when mom comes back to work there isn’t a room, she may not continue.”

LeBonheur Children’s Hospital launched a pediatric obesity program in 2014 with a healthy lifestyle clinic team that includes doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, registered dietitians, fitness specialists and behavioral health coaches. For adolescents and young adults with severe obesity and related health problems, bariatric surgery is expected to be available as an additional treatment option as early as this summer.

In 2006, Clintonia Simmons founded Healthy Kids & Teens Inc. and the Camp Fit Foundation in Memphis. She had a vested interest: “I had an obese child. I went to a town hall meeting as a concerned parent.”

Through her organizations’ programs, she’s not only trying to reach kids on two tracks – eating habits and exercise habits – but their families. In Memphis, Simmons said, 80 percent of African-American families are led by a woman. Getting children and parents the best information is the starting point and Simmons doesn’t mind using a little subterfuge for a good cause.

Like recently, when some children in the program were offered and ate some ice cream. Only afterward did they learn they had eaten vegan ice cream.

“And everybody loved it,” Simmons said.

Success rates for lowering weight can be a moving target, but Simmons is positive of this much: They are successful 100 percent of the time in improving children’s nutrition knowledge.

“We teach that you’re personally responsible for your body and you only get one,” she said. “We encourage kids to be health champions at home and to go to the grocery store with parents.”

Hamburg says another study/survey also found that education has a profound impact on childhood obesity with children raised by parents with 12 years of education or less having a 30.4 percent obesity rate; children raised by college-educated parents had a 9.5 percent obesity rate.

That dovetails with about 30 million Americans living in food deserts – typically low-income areas and defined as being more than one mile away from a supermarket in an urban setting or more than 10 miles away in a rural area.

Big picture, Hamburg cites the increased mobility of American society – everyone’s on the go much of the time – and with more time taken up by work, and thus the eating of more meals outside the home (meaning consumption of more butter and processed sugar) as complicating factors in the fight against childhood obesity.

But there also has been a nationwide cultural shift in how children live and play – or don’t play.

“We’re all telling the same story – you go out and play till it’s dark,” Hamburg said of how adults remember their own childhoods.

Now, kids not only devote more time to electronics in various forms, but Hamburg says the emphasis on standardized test scores in the schools also had the “unintended consequence” of reducing the emphasis on physical fitness.

Simmons, of course, is both trying to teach kids to eat healthier and get more exercise. In general, most overweight kids are initially more receptive to exercise than dramatically changing eating habits.

“But the heavier they are,” she said, “the more resistance you meet.”

Haushalter likens the current movement against obesity to where education about tobacco use was years ago.

“I’m old enough to remember when nurses smoked in the workplace,” Haushalter said.

The mindset didn’t change overnight. And Hamburg says in the case of obesity, it’s crucial to remember that small changes can have big positive effects. In other words, you turn the corner one step at a time.

“You don’t have to run a marathon,” Hamburg said of getting healthier. “Most cases of pre-diabetes never turn into full-blown diabetes with losing even five or 10 pounds.”

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