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.
Mary Westerholm knows the advice she gives to children and adults with weight issues sometimes is a hard sell.
But Westerholm, a physician with Cadence Health, said she talks to them from a place of understanding because she struggled with her weight as an adolescent. While Westerholm has been at a healthy weight for 10 years, she has to deliberately eat healthy every day.
“It was always an off-and-on battle for me. In college, I learned how to exercise and eat right,” she said. “I think for an overweight adolescent, while they know they’re overweight, it’s really embarrassing and difficult to talk about.”
She sees the problem of childhood obesity getting worse.
“Part of the problem is that the adult population obesity is getting worse,” she said. “Kids tend to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Eighty percent of people who are obese as kids tend to stay obese. If you even begin becoming overweight and obese as a child, it’s so hard to change that going into adulthood. I think this is only going to get worse as the generations go on.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity in the United States has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
In 2010, more than one-third of children and adolescents were considered overweight or obese.
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.
One consequence of the increasing number of overweight children is that more kids are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, a chronic condition that affects the way one’s body metabolizes sugar, or glucose, which is the body’s main source of fuel.
“We used to talk about diabetes as adult onset diabetes and juvenile diabetes, but now Type 2 diabetes is so prevalent among kids that we don’t call it adult onset diabetes anymore,” said Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute. “It’s just Type 2 diabetes.”
Childhood obesity can cause a host of other problems in addition to diabetes.
“We just know that kids very often experience not just one problem associated with being overweight, but multiple problems,” said Beverly Henry, an associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. “We don’t even know how many things can go wrong when you have diabetes for, in essence, twice as long as we have seen it with adults.”
The American Medical Association recently labeled obesity as a disease.
“Everything that we think about with chronic diseases for adults – heart disease, diabetes, things like that – may occur even earlier with these kids,” Henry said.
Obesity also can contribute to respiratory problems such as asthma, she said, and if that’s not controlled well, a child often is less likely to be physically active.
And overweight or obese children tend to miss more school, she said.
Along with physical problems, childhood obesity can affect their self-esteem, and they are more likely to be subjected to bullying, Henry said.
“Just think back to those grade school years, all those body shape changes with puberty,” Henry said. “When kids are overweight, they mature earlier, but their psychological development is not going to mature earlier. So, now the physical body changes are happening before the brain can kind of reason that this is just a part of growing up.”
Licensed clinical professional counselor Joanna Robbins helps overweight teens with their self-esteem issues. She is a lifestyle coach with the ProActive Kids program at the St. Charles Park District’s Pottawatomie Community Center, which is funded through Cadence Health.
“They doubt their physical abilities and think they’re not pretty or good-looking,” Robbins said.
Robbins’ advice to parents of overweight or obese children would be to actively participate in their child’s fitness program.
“Don’t make it the kids’ problem,” she said. “Make it a family affair. If they’re doing push-ups and sit-ups, get down on the ground and do them with them.”
And parents also can help in boosting their child’s self-esteem by reminding their children what they are good at.
“Society seems to put a lot of weight on our appearance and our physical looks,” she said. “If their kids are doing well academically and socially, parents still need to kind of reinforce those and that their looks are not the only defining characteristic about them.”
Westerholm said it’s important to get parents involved in their child’s weight struggles and notes she gives most of her advice to parents.
“If you think about it, kids that are 8 and 9 years old, they are not the ones going to the grocery store and doing the shopping,” she said. “I try to put most of the responsibility on the parents, especially when I am dealing with younger children.”
And it’s never too early to make sure your child has a healthy diet.
“We see trends for child obesity starting even in infancy,” Westerholm said. “I really try to take a preventative approach from the get-go, and developing healthy eating patterns early on. It’s so much easier to prevent this issue than to treat it.”
Westerholm noted that changes made for the health benefit of children should be made by adults, too, as kids follow the example of their parents.
“Parents that eat healthy and are active and exercise, those are patterns that they will see and will follow,” she said.
Westerholm reviews with her patients what they eat daily, and uses that as a springboard to guide them through easy changes they can make. Small things like cutting juice – which has many calories and sugar with little nutritional benefits – are places to start, she said. Other small changes, she said, include switching from whole to fat-free milk and getting rid of sodas. Westerholm also will tell parents about the importance of portion control, getting rid of snacks and incorporating more vegetables into meals.
Success is directly tied to how much effort families put forth in getting healthy.
“It really takes a motivated family,” she said. “The biggest key to people who have success is motivation.”