LIMA — It’s no secret that obesity in the United States has become one of the country’s biggest and fastest growing problems. Perhaps most concerning, however, is its effect on the nation’s youth.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the last 30 years. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Data from the National Survey of Children’s Health also reveals that, from 2003 to 2011, 17.4 percent of adolescents in Ohio were considered obese.
“Honestly, I’m scared for our future,” said Stephanie Dunkle-Blatter, medical director of St. Rita’s Weight Management Center. “We as a population are no longer dying from infectious diseases, we are dying from problems related to our weight. Heart disease, strokes — all of that comes from obesity.
“It truly is an epidemic.”
Life-threatening diseases like diabetes can also stem from obesity, which is especially alarming when children are affected. Linda Kerr, pediatric nurse practitioner at Lima Memorial Health System, said she has seen an increasing number of children with type 2 diabetes in the last 20 years.
“When I first became a nurse practitioner 40 years ago, we didn’t see type 2 diabetes in kids or adolescents at all,” Kerr said. “Then all the sudden we started to see an increasing number of kids affected by it, and the common denominator is obesity.”
Experts agree there are a number of factors that have contributed to such a dramatic increase in childhood obesity in recent decades. Larger portion sizes, fast food, processed meals, sugary drinks, more time spent in front of screens and less physical activity have all led to the obesity problem we see today.
According to Dunkle-Blatter, children are also more likely to become obese if their parents suffer from weight problems.
“We do know that kids have an 80 percent chance of becoming obese if their parents are obese,” she said. “It’s not just genetics, it’s also behaviors and habits.”
One local expert said parents have to realize that obesity is not a personal issue — it affects an entire family.
“The entire family has to start eating healthier, which requires changes for everyone,” said Sue Wiseman, registered dietitian at Joint Township District Memorial Hospital. “A lot of times, trying to get everyone on board can be an issue. It’s hard to change habits, so it can be a daily struggle to keep up those changes.
“They eventually do become a new lifestyle, but you have to keep up those changes for awhile before they become habit.”
A healthy diet coupled with plenty of exercise continues to be the best way to fight obesity, and experts are constantly developing methods families can use when making lifestyle changes.
One of these methods is called “5-2-1-Almost None.” This guide to a healthy lifestyle is a daily regimen that includes five servings of fruits and vegetables, no more than two hours of screen time, at least one hour of physical activity and almost no sugar.
Another resource families can turn to is the “MyPlate” method. A replacement of the food pyramid, MyPlate is a visual tool that shows what types of food should be consumed in order to maintain a healthy diet. MyPlate is divided into four food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains and protein. Fruits and vegetables make up half the plate, with grains and protein constituting the other half.
In order to make these methods a reality, parents must purchase fresh, healthy ingredients they can use to prepare home-cooked meals.
“We’re all busy, and fast food is easy, fast and often cheap,” Dunkle-Blatter said. “It will take a bit of planning to make that list and go to the grocery store to buy those healthy foods to have at home, but it’s worth it in the long run.”
Dunkle-Blatter recommends that families eat home-cooked meals together as much as possible and involve children in the meal preparation so they can learn the value of nutrition.
Having only healthy foods in the home also cuts down on temptation.
“Only having those healthier options at home can make a difference,” Wiseman said. “Don’t bring all those potato chips and Twinkies and stuff to the house because it’s tempting. They (parents) have control over what foods they bring into the house, and they can limit the unhealthy ones.”
Along with a healthier diet, exercise plays a large role in limiting childhood obesity.
To get children to exercise, Dunkle-Blatter suggests parents offer incentives.
“If a kid is going to play a video game for an hour, then they need to do something physical for an hour to sort of earn that time,” she said.
There are also a variety of activities children can participate in that allow them to have fun while staying physically fit.
At the local level, the Lima Family YMCA has a wide range of options for children. Youth sports leagues, day camps, swimming, fitness classes, gymnastics and more are all offered at the YMCA.
“We encourage kids to be active and families to be active together,” said Terri Averesch, vice president of the Lima Family YMCA. “We try to encourage ways to make activities fun.”
Averesch went on to say that children are more likely to stay active if they are having fun while doing so.
Childhood obesity experts agree that a good first step for parents whose children are struggling with obesity is to educate themselves on the best ways to get their kids to exercise and adopt a healthy diet.
“I think the best place is start is with education,” Dunkle-Blatter said. “We can do a lot with nutrition especially, and if someone is overweight or worried they might be overweight, the first place to start is with their primary care doctor.
“There are avenues for help and there is a lot of information out there, but it all starts with your primary care doctor.”
For Kerr, reversing the childhood obesity trend starts at the community level.
“I think we need to give parents and kids more support either through physician’s offices, programs in the community or programs in the school that teach them how to make better choice,” she said.
Though developing healthy lifestyle habits can be a long and arduous process, experts agree it’s necessary to reduce obesity rates in children and to improve the overall health of our society.
“We all have to work really hard at developing those healthy eating and exercise habits,” Dunkle-Blatter said. “I think some people think it comes to naturally, but we all struggle with how to get exercise and a proper diet into our lives. It directly affects our health, so it’s definitely worth putting in the time and effort.”
Reach John Bush at 567-242-0456 or on Twitter @bush_lima.