Some call youth obesity an epidemic. One out of every six American youth is overweight, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control report.
It’s high fives from the doctor, then a check-up for preschool twins celebrating their birthdays in a small examination room at the Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha. The doctor is Cristina Fernandez, a pediatrician who also sees patients at Children’s Hospital. The girls Fernandez is seeing this day aren’t overweight, but many of her patients are.
“Our society makes kids that are going to be bigger than their parents and probably they’re going to die earlier than their parents,” Fernandez said.
More than 12 million kids are considered obese in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s nearly 17 percent of the population. Although a state-by-state breakdown was not part of this CDC report, experts believe the youth obesity percentage may actually be a little higher in Nebraska, especially in rural areas. It’s also more common for boys, more common for minority populations and more common for kids from low socioeconomic situations. Compare the 17 percent national youth obesity rate to the 1970s, when the percentage was just five percent.
“Part of the problem is it’s not one thing,” said Dr. Bob Rauner, who chairs the public health committee of the Nebraska Medical Association. “One is just the food that we eat. It’s more processed now. What we consider to be normal as far as what we drink. It used to be mainly water or milk. People would split a Coke on a date and that was as much pop as people drank. Now it’s normal to have a 20 ounce Coke at lunch and another 20 ounce Coke in the evening. There’s just no way you’re going to work off that many calories. There’s just relentless marketing to kids on things that they shouldn’t be eating anyway. On the Internet and TV, even through the school system. So marketing’s part of it.”
It’s also a matter of how kids are spending their time. Dr. Jennifer Huberty is an associate professor of health, physical education and recreation at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She says kids model the activity of their parents and just 10 to 15 percent of adults are regularly active.
“So if they’re not doing it themselves, it’s highly unlikely that they’re promoting it in their family life with their children,” Huberty said. “So you know, if they’re coming home from work and watching television, the chances that their child has a TV in their room or is playing Nintendo while their parents are watching television is pretty high.”
Huberty says there’s also a trend toward schools devoting less time to physical activity.
“We know that academic achievement scores and testing are so important now,” Huberty said. “We’re kind of getting overboard with this academic achievement and we’re forgetting that kids need an outlet for physical activity.”
Finding ways to get kids moving again is Huberty’s specialty. She does research and trains educators to make better use of the time they have for physical activity during recess and after school programs.
“So within the recess setting, what we’re trying to do is make sure that in the 15 minutes that children get, if they get it, that they’re getting an opportunity to be active, and at a certain intensity level,” Huberty said. “It’s contributing to the total recommendation, which is 60 minutes every day; and after school, the same thing.”
Rauner said Nebraska lags behind some other states in creating public policy initiatives addressing youth obesity, especially efforts to monitor the problem. But he points to some communities and schools that have been successful in reducing youth obesity, places like Kearney and the Norris schools outside Lincoln. Rauner says successful efforts are usually driven more by passionate advocates.
“You have to have kind of an outside expert, someone who really understands the policy, the public health side of it,” Rauner said. “You have to have grassroots support from either parents or principals or teachers, and you have to have also some support from above meaning the school superintendent or the school board. So the places where it happens is where you get a collection of those people.”
Rauner says there are also lessons to be learned from history, from public health initiatives decades ago addressing the hazards of smoking. He says education alone didn’t reduce smoking, that it took taxation and regulation of cigarette ads and product placement.
“You have to change the environment and the marketing and some other things before you really see widespread change,” Rauner added.
Fernandez says one exciting change is new USDA school meal guidelines, which include increased offerings of fruits, vegetables and whole grain items and requirements milk be fat free or low fat, as well as maximums for the amount of calories in a meal. But she says more is needed, because she sees the impact of youth obesity nearly every day in her practice. Health problems like high cholesterol, and back and neck pain.
“We see our kids that are, for example 8-years-old and 180 pounds, and they already have hypertension,” Fernandez said. “We see diabetes already or insulin resistance that is pre-diabetes symptoms. We see a lot of these issues related to obesity.”
Issues Fernandez says used to be found mostly in adults.
Editor's note: This Signature Story is part of our "Best of 2012" series of reports, airing Dec. 24 to Dec. 28, 2012 on NET Radio, looking back at some of the most memorable Signature Stories from NET News throughout the year. It originally aired June 19.