Obesity epidemic also affects children

October 16, 2014 By Noelle Leong, M.D., pediatrician

As you may know, obesity is an epidemic in this country, one that also affects children, including in Connecticut. Nationally, almost 20 percent of children -- age 2 to adolescents at 18 – are obese. Numerous factors are contributing to obesity's high incidence, including unhealthy food choices and lack of exercise. Therefore, the impact of obesity, especially that starting at a young age, cannot be ignored.

About 300,000 people die each year from complications stemming from obesity yet obesity is the second leading cause of death from a preventable disease. And there are many long-term effects of obesity including heart disease, diabetes, bone disorders, cancers and psychological stressors. Obesity leads to plaque buildup (which can cause heart attacks and strokes) in blood vessels and this can start in the teen years.

Unhealthy meals are readily accessible, easier to prepare and often more affordable than the healthier varieties. Portion sizes have also dramatically increased, meaning that the total number of calories we're consuming is also increasing. For example, did you know that the Bloomin' Onions appetizer at a popular restaurant has about 2,000 calories -- almost an average individual's daily caloric intake! Sweet drinks and inadequate amounts of exercise contribute to obesity so it is recommended that children under age 6 have no more than 6 ounces of juice each day. Remember, water is free while sweet drinks are not, so choose wisely!

Education is a big part of learning to make healthier food choices. For example, it's important to read food package labels to know what an item contains and make sure you look at the serving size. It might say 100 calories per serving, but a serving may be only 15 crackers and not the whole bag. There are easy-to-read books including The Calorie King that can help you make better decisions. Look for food items with low saturated fats and high fiber (the daily goal of fiber is 30 grams). Eating more vegetables and high fiber foods can improve your cholesterol.

Exercise is an important part of staying healthy. It's recommended that children and adults get at least 30 minutes of exercise three times a week. Other tips toward healthy living for children include limiting the amount of screen time (TV, video games, cell phones, tablets, computers) your children watch since the more screen time they get the more they are likely to be snacking and the less time they have to spend exercising.

Finally, it's important that parents serve as role models. Children look up to the adults around them, so make sure you are making healthy choices so they learn to do the same.

Noelle Leong, M.D., is a pediatrician at The Hospital of Central Connecticut's Outpatient Pediatric Clinic. For referrals to HOCC physicians, please contact our free Need-A-Physician referral service by phone at 1.800.DOCTORS.