In the United States today, roughly one-third of children are overweight or obese. Learn more about the chronic condition and how to prevent it.
Childhood obesity affects approximately 1 in 3 children, making it the most common chronic disease of childhood.
Look insideKP Northern California sat down with John Struthers, MD, a pediatrician at the Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center, to learn more about the disease and how to combat it. Dr. Struthers founded and currently leads a program in the Lifestyle Medicine Department dedicated to managing and preventing childhood obesity.
What is childhood obesity?
Body Mass Index (BMI) is calculated using a child’s weight and height and then comparing them to other children of the same age and sex. A child is defined as obese if his or her BMI percentage is greater than 95 percent of children with the same age and sex. A child is defined as overweight if his or her BMI is between 85 percent and 95 percent.
A high BMI increases the risk for health problems. However, a BMI is not perfect because it doesn’t distinguish between fat weight and muscle weight. And even children with normal BMIs can have similar health problems due to an unhealthy lifestyle.
The rate of childhood obesity has increased due to a combination of complex factors: lifestyle, diet, genetics, activity level, and one’s family and community.
What are the health consequences of obesity in childhood?
Obesity in childhood is a huge health problem. It’s predicted that this generation of kids will have shorter life spans than their parents, due largely to type 2 diabetes being diagnosed at earlier ages.
In addition to type 2 diabetes, children are at risk for developing conditions such as high blood pressure, worsened asthma, heart disease, orthopedic problems, and sleep apnea, to name a few.
Mental health and self-esteem are also greatly affected. A JAMA study found that severely obese children and adolescents have a lower health-related quality of life than children and adolescents who are healthy and a similar quality of life as those diagnosed with cancer.
How does Kaiser Permanente work with parents to prevent it?
The first thing to address is what kids are drinking. Often, people think fruit juice, Gatorade, or smoothies are healthy. Even though smoothies contain fruit, the fiber is broken up when it’s put into a blender. Fiber is essential because it slows the rate that sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream.
We recommend water and milk. Or slicing up lemon or cucumber into water to add flavor. Once we stop drinking sugary drinks, usually in about a month, taste buds change. Kids who pick up soda or apple juice will start to think those types of beverages are way too sweet. It is possible to retrain the taste buds.
Also, we encourage families to be more active and have less screen time. A lot of screen time equals poor sleep, which can affect mood and can lead to overeating.
Sugar is often the most prominent component of food. Between 60 to 80 percent of food items in grocery stores have added sugars. It’s hard to avoid. We always say that fiber is our friend, and you can get that through eating whole foods, such as veggies, beans, nuts, whole grains, and fruit.
Describe your work in Pediatric Weight Management/Lifestyle Medicine.
We don’t put a focus on weight; we put a focus on creating a healthy lifestyle and habits.
The program I run at Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento, Fit Weight, started as a pilot in 2010. We see children aged 5 – 17 years, after school, with any family members who can attend.
It’s 6 months of engagement with the family, starting with alternating classes one week, and then phone coaching with a health coach the next. We talk about behavior changes and tips for nutritious eating and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle.
We get referrals from other pediatricians, or families can self-refer.
Why is childhood obesity an especially important topic to tackle?
The health consequences of this disease, and its associated costs, are huge. Unhealthy lifestyles are crippling the United States health care system. There is so much we can do to prevent this, and Kaiser Permanente is dedicated to helping families that are affected to get the help they need so they can live long lives and thrive.