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Healthy Balance

Childhood Obesity: Get the Facts

Little Girl ExercisingAbout 32 percent of children and teens in the United States are obese or overweight — a number that’s tripled in the last 30 years, according to the government

And all of this extra weight jeopardizes the long-term health of these children.

“It’s not about what a child weighs,” says Susan Cluett, a nurse practitioner who directs the Children’s Fitness Clinic at UVA Children’s Hospital. “It’s about the potential for that child to have many life-long health issues if we don’t change things.

“I’ve seen children as young as 10 who have elevated levels of lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides), high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, “ says Cluett. “Obesity is a chronic disease that affects every organ system in the body.”

The Health Consequences of Overweight Children

Research shows the long-term effects:

  • A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine shows obese children are more likely than healthy-weight children to die before the age of 55.
  • Another long-term study of more than 276,000 Danish children found those who were overweight (even just a little chubby) when they were 7 to 13 years old were much more likely to develop heart disease between the ages of 25 and 71.

What’s Causing the Obesity Epidemic?

No one thing is to blame for the obesity epidemic. But societal factors play a key role:

  • Kids today have more sedentary “screen” time (TV, computer, etc.) and less active play time.
  • Kids have easy access to high-fat snacks and sugar-laden sodas.

But the main problem is less obvious, says Ashleigh Sellman, a UVA registered dietitian and certified specialist in pediatric nutrition. Because kids are eating while they’re in front of the TV and have easy access to fatty snacks, they no longer eat just when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. So they develop a skewed relationship with food.

The consequence: Kids regularly take in more (mostly empty) calories than they expend.

Childhood Obesity: How to Help?

Experts agree that parents play a key role.

Every day, Cluett, Sellman and others at UVA are tackling the obesity epidemic by working with parents and kids. Sellman admits, “It is a challenge to raise a child to have a good relationship with food. It takes knowledge, work and constant reinforcement.”

So what do these experts suggest you do?

Check back here tomorrow when we’ll provide you with summertime healthy eating and lifestyle tips. The changes you make this summer will have long-lasting positive effects.

UVA’s Nutritional Counseling Center offers nutritional education and counseling by a pediatric nutritionist. UVA’s Children’s Fitness Clinic offers a medical-based approach where families have access to a nurse practitioner and nutritionist.

Talk to your child’s doctor about what program is best or call 888.882.9892 to make an appointment with either UVA program.

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