Attempts to eliminate junk food from menus and encourage kids to walk or bike to school may be too little, too late, according to a new report looking at childhood obesity rates.
The U.S. study, published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that children with weight problems at age 5, kindergarten students, are likely to continue down that road.
More than 12 per cent of children enter kindergarten obese. Those already overweight at that age – 14 per cent of kids – are four times more likely than normal weight children to become obese by the eighth grade.
Between ages 5 and 14, nearly 12 per cent of children developed obesity – 10 per cent of girls and nearly 14 per cent of boys.
Nearly half of kids who started kindergarten overweight became obese teens. Overweight five-year-olds were four times as likely as normal-weight children to become obese (32 per cent vs. 8 per cent).
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Led by Solveig A. Cunningham, an assistant professor at Emory University in Atlanta, the research team analyzed data on children in the U.S. kindergarten class of 1998-1999, using some 7,700 kids involved in a long-term study. With appropriate survey adjustments the data sample represents all U.S. children enrolled in kindergarten during that time (approximately 3.8 million).
“Our findings uncovered several important points by examining incidence over time,” says Cunningham. “We have evidence that certain factors established before birth and during the first five years are important. Obesity-prevention efforts focused on children who are overweight by five-years-old, may be a way to target children susceptible to becoming obese later in life.”
In other words, it’s best to start early when it comes to preventing obesity, and all the health problems that come with it.
Concerned about obesity and falling fitness levels, authorities have been encouraging kids to walk, bike or blade to school. In Waterloo Region, the public health department promotes the practice, and planners pay more attention to safe school routes. Fewer than half of Canadian children now walk to school, and the figure drops to 10 per cent in the United States; 26.8 per cent of Ontario students surveyed said they would like to ride their bicycle to school, but only 3.5 per cent do; two out of three Canadian children do not meet average physical activity guidelines to achieve optimum growth and development; more than 25 per cent of Canadian and American children and youth are overweight.
Efforts in the schools are commendable, but this week’s study indicates parents will have to do more even before they send their kids off to school. The consequences of not doing so? Another U.S. study points out the risks. Childhood obesity can have a harmful effect on the body in a variety of ways. Obese children are more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease; increased risk of impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes; breathing problems, such as sleep apnea, and asthma; joint problems and musculoskeletal discomfort; fatty liver disease, gallstones, and gastro-esophageal reflux (i.e., heartburn).
As well, obese children and adolescents have a greater risk of social and psychological problems, such as discrimination and poor self-esteem, which can continue into adulthood.
Not a pretty picture. And, a month after the start of the new year, perhaps an incentive to revisit a resolution or two.