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A weighty issue: Kids' fight to be fit

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013 3:42 p.m. CDT

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September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and the Kane County Chronicle is presenting a three-day series on childhood obesity and its effects on our children.

The word “diet” is never uttered in Melissa Webb’s house in St. Charles.

That doesn’t mean she isn’t careful about the meals she serves her three children.

“I try to lead by example. I cook very healthy and pack healthy snacks,” said Webb, who for the past year has been on the Weight Watchers program.

“It has to be a lifestyle,” Webb said. “You throw the word diet out at kids, and it’s going to knock down their confidence quite a bit, I think.”

Eating healthy has become more of a priority for Webb after her daughter, 9-year-old Madi, was diagnosed as being overweight and having a higher body mass index, or BMI, than she should have. BMI is a number calculated from a child’s weight and height. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BMI is a reliable indicator of body fat for most children and teens.

“She doesn’t know when to listen to her body in terms of being full,” Webb said. “She just continues to eat. Unfortunately, that is a problem that many Americans have.”

Madi is not alone. About 17 percent, or 12.5 million of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 years old in the United States, are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled.

In the simplest terms, a child with excess body fat is considered overweight or obese. Doctors take several factors into consideration – including weight, age, height and gender – to determine whether a child fits one of those categories. Children well above the normal weight for their age and height are considered obese, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The effects of childhood obesity are serious and widespread, and there might be no better illustration of obesity’s rapid incline and the corresponding detriment to health than an observation in a 2005 study in The New England Journal of Medicine that the children who comprise this generation could end up living shorter lives than their parents.

Reasons behind rise in childhood obesity

There are many reasons for childhood obesity’s rise, but experts tend to start the discussion by noting changes to American society during the past two or three decades.

Fast food and soda – filled with empty calories and sold cheap and in large quantities – are everywhere and fit neatly into on-the-go lifestyles. Advertising is heavy for those products and often geared toward kids – $1.6 billion is spent annually on food advertising to children and adolescents, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

In addition, technology makes it easier than ever to stay entertained without expending much energy.

As the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity noted in its 124-page report in 2010, “screen time” is up among children, as kids continue to sit in front of TVs, computers and gaming systems.

One of the major issues, said Dr. Bob Topp, childhood obesity expert and associate dean of Marquette University’s College of Nursing, is that the health care systems don’t know how to treat obesity. It’s a behavioral disease, and as such requires prevention rather than medication or surgery.

But that fact has led to a “tipping point,” said Dr. Beverly Henry, an associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

There are now many organizations working to find solutions.

However, scattered efforts haven’t led to feasible results.

“In the beginning, everyone comes to the table with their own agenda,” Henry said. “It takes a while to form that common goal and that common plan.”

Kane County officials are working to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. In 2008, the county kicked off its “Making Kane County Fit for Kids” initiative, which has the goal of reversing childhood obesity in Kane County by 2020.

In the past five years, the county has provided more than $430,000 to community organizations to implement changes in Kane County to increase healthy eating and increase active living, said Michael Isaacson, assistant director for community health for the Kane County Health Department.

And it’s needed. Of the 2- to 5-year-olds enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children food assistance program in Kane County, 32 percent are considered obese or overweight.

“The fact that these very young kids are already heavy, it’s even more critical to do something,” Isaacson said.

The Fit for Kids Funders’ Consortium has funded such programs as International Walk to School Day across the county. Last year, 53 schools in the county participated. The annual awareness event helps reach not just children but also parents and schools, Isaacson said.

“We can raise awareness about the benefits of walking and riding bicycles to school,” he said. “It also gives us an opportunity to look at specific schools so we can identify things that can be potential barriers.”

Isaacson said it will take everyone’s efforts to reverse childhood obesity. Kane County’s 2011 Community Health Assessment indicates that 21.8 percent of children younger than 18 are considered obese.

“No one intervention by itself is going to do the trick,” Isaacson said. “We really need to engage all different sectors of the community to really change the culture, to move more to a culture of wellness where people are active in their daily lives.”

Kane County schools also are trying to be part of the solution. For example, Batavia School District 101 this fall joined other area school districts in banning outside food in classrooms.

Brad Newkirk, the district’s chief academic officer, said the new policy is designed to address the district’s food allergy management policy and its health and wellness policy.

Geneva and Kaneland school districts prohibit birthday treats in the form of food items. St. Charles School District 303 supports nonfood treats and activities for school celebrations, as well as avoiding using food as an incentive or reward in the classroom. The district also discourages selling food as a means of fundraising.

It takes a family

Parents also are key to keeping children healthy. That’s why Webb enrolled Madi in the ProActive Kids program at the St. Charles Park District’s Pottawatomie Community Center, which is funded through Cadence Health.

The eight-week program is designed to teach kids and their families ways to improve their health through exercise, nutritional lessons and open discussion.

Webb admitted that in the past, she was somewhat in denial about Madi’s weight and thought her daughter would thin out as she grew taller. She knows it’s better to address it now before it leads to health problems.

Webb said she hopes the program will help boost Madi’s self-confidence. Her daughter loves cheerleading and softball and can be tough on herself. Her other two children don’t have weight problems.

“I want to learn how to be healthy,” Madi said.

She is learning that exercise can be fun after enthusiastically running up and down a set of steep stairs at Pottawatomie Park recently as part of the program.

“I was the first one up and down,” Madi said proudly.

Webb also hopes that being around children who are battling the same problems will help give Madi’s self-esteem a boost.

“It’s very important to me as her mom to make sure that she knows she is not alone, that there are other kids who struggle just like she does, and that just because she’s overweight, it does not define her,” Webb said. “And right now, she kind of lets that define her. In the end, what I want really most of all is for her to gain some confidence and for her to be proud of whatever accomplishments she makes in the program.”

Determining Weight Status

Determining whether a child is overweight or obese is not as simple as looking at a number on a scale.

In the simplest terms, a child with excess body fat is considered overweight or obese. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using Body Mass Index, or BMI, as a way to screen children starting at age 2.

The BMI is calculated by using the child's weight, height, gender and age.

The BMI is then used to determine a child's weight status – underweight, healthy weight, overweight or obese – by comparing that child's BMI to others who are the same age and gender. That child is placed into a percentile for age and gender.

Children are deemed to fall into the overweight category if they have a BMI at or above the 85th percentile but lower than the 95th percentile for kids of the same age and sex. Those at or above the 95th percentile are considered obese, according to the CDC.

The CDC provides a calculator that can be used to determine a child's BMI and what percentile he or she is in.

The calculator asks for sex, birth date, day measurements were taken, height and weight, and then provides a BMI and percentile ranking for that child.

Below are examples of weight status ranges for children at various genders, ages and weights.

BOY - 4 Born: Jan. 17, 2009 Height: 3 feet, 1 inch Day of measurement: Aug. 5, 2013

Underweight range: 0 to 27 Healthy weight range: 27.25 to 32.75 Overweight range: 33 to 34.5 Obese range: 34.75 and above

GIRL - 8 Born: March 4, 2005 Height: 3 feet, 10 inches Day of measurement: Aug. 5, 2013

Underweight range: 0 to 40.75 Healthy weight range: 41 to 56 Overweight range: 56.25 to 63.5 Obese range: 63.75 and above

BOY - 13 Born: May 10, 2000 Height: 5 feet, 1 inches Day of measurement: Aug. 5, 2013

Underweight range: 0 to 82.25 Healthy weight range: 82.5 to 116.50 Overweight range: 116.75 to 134 Obese range: 134.25 and above

GIRL - 16 Born: Nov. 28, 1996 Height: 5 feet, 6 inches Day of measurement: Aug. 5, 2013

Underweight range: 0 to 105.75 Healthy weight range: 106 to 155 Overweight range: 155.25 to 182.25 Obese range: 182.5 and above

Sources: Calculation done on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculator; Beverly Henry, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University, helped with wording of text

More online

Find out your child's weight status by visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's BMI percentile calculator for children and teenagers at http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/dnpabmi.

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