Childhood obesity, generation of the belly boomers
Just recently, I’ve been doing some research on renting a cabin in the mountains for an upcoming trip away from the city. While scrolling through webpage after webpage of cabin descriptions, I discovered a trend that was remarkably different from back in my childhood days of researching cabins. Along with the descriptions of gorgeous views and balcony hot tubs, nearly every cabin had a paragraph devoted entirely to what kind of cable/satellite/dish TV there was, along with a multitude of Game Cube/Xbox/Playstation connections, and of course, a full video library and high speed internet. In my opinion, my priorities when heading up to the mountains with my family do not include staying inside hooked up to technology. The surprise aroused from reading such selling points got me thinking about how sad it is that people allow their children to sit inside all day, even while on vacation, to play video games. And although this is a mere example, it provides evidence supporting the latest epidemic in today’s children- childhood obesity.
Working in the healthcare field, it is a sad but true reality that you expect to find aging overweight people admitted with varied health problems including heart disease, strokes, hypertension, etc. What I have found to be even more disturbing since working in a pediatric facility is the amount of overweight children that are presenting with similar issues related to obesity, but 40 years too soon. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey results from 2007-2008 revealed that about 17 percent of children ranging in age from 2-19 years old are obese. I was shocked by such a percentage- that’s 1 child out of every 5 classified as obese with a weight greater than the 90th percentile in weight-for-age charts. As a pediatric nurse, I routinely encounter overweight children being admitted with severe health issues including early onset Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, asthma exacerbated by carrying extra weight, fatty liver symptoms, sleep apnea requiring home CPAP machines, and hormonal imbalances causing early puberty- all aforementioned health issues spawned by their obesity. Not only do these children have physiological implications to being obese, but many face scrutiny from their peers and suffer from low self esteem as they enter their teenage years.
Nutrition 101 teaches us that in order to maintain a consistent weight, you must consume an equal number of calories that you burn. Analyzing some hobbies of today’s youth reveals an exorbitant amount of options for sedentary lifestyles, most impressively due to the popularity of the video game. There is a different video game for every interest, every skill level, even every age. Sure, one can argue that with the development of the Wii kids have become more active- but it’s a sad day when an argument for exercise still entails sitting in front of a television screen with a controller in hand. A huge factor that contributes to today’s epidemic of childhood obesity is mere lack of activity, this also being one of the most preventable causes. I can’t even begin to number how many H&Ps are marked with video games as the primary hobby in the activities section. Parents need to be more proactive at getting their kids outside, off the couch, and away from the television.
The other largely contributing factor to weight gain in all ages is diet. America is known for being a country with very poor eating habits. The plethora of fast food options and processed foods in the grocery stores leads to diets that are heavy in fats and carbohydrates and lacking in fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins. I will say I have noticed the numbers of health-conscience eaters rising exponentially in recent years, even since I was an adolescent. You can’t read a magazine without finding some “healthy, organic” recipe and you can’t find a grocery without an organic, unprocessed, all natural section.
However, we are still immersed in the generation of healthy foods also being the more expensive foods. I completely understand how a family of five can each drastically cheaper at a Burger King than eating a well-balanced meal of fruits and vegetables and fish rich in Omega 3s at home. But teaching our children healthier eating habits from little on up is something that all parents can do, and as healthcare professionals we can guide these parents to make better food choices for their children. Not buying sugary snacks, choosing lean meat options, skipping dessert with each meal are all small steps that families can take to promote better health. The problem arises when these same parents have been making poor food choices all their lives, so they don’t know any better- hence, the vicious cycle of extra weight is passed down through generations.
Aside from strictly behavioral and environmental factors contributing to weight gain, there are unfortunately other factors such as genetics and certain conditions that may make some children more prone to obesity than others. Conditions such as Prader-Willi syndrome and Cushing’s syndrome, although rare, leave children overweight regardless of diet and exercise.
In light of the health awareness I had discussed previously, certain cities are beginning to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic by limiting the amount of unhealthy food options in schools and removing high sugar content sodas from drink machines. One idea I found quite interesting was the “walking school bus” initiative where a group of children walk to school supervised by an adult, thereby promoting a safe and active means of transportation for the kids.
Although the five year-old that we admitted recently who looked a bowling ball waddling down the hall weighing in at nearly 90 pounds was cute in her own way, it saddened me to see already how disabling her weight was at such a young age, and it was even more troubling to think about her future health implications. What can we do as healthcare providers? Teach, support, educate, encourage, refer, etc. Get these families the help, encouragement, and reality check they need to stop this epidemic in their own families. Weight control and weight loss is never an easy topic of discussion, nor is it an easy path to take. But with enough education spiraling in from varying facets of their lives and lifestyle changes brought on by families, these children have a chance to ward off the obesity epidemic. With the Baby Boomer population expected to soon create an influx of ederly populations in our hospitals, without some interventions to tackle the childhood obesity problem, the next generation to flood the hospital ERs will be the middle-aged Belly Boomers. I hope to be still working in pediatrics when that happens…
Nicole Lehr is a pediatric nurse. She can be described in three adjectives: content, thankful and fortunate. All credit for the aforementioned description can be given to the love she has for her profession as an RN. She graduated from University of Florida with her Bachelor’s in Nursing and moved to Atlanta to work at the Cardiac Stepdown Unit at Children’s — her dream job.
By Nicole Lehr