2006-06-02 / Columnists

It's My Turn

By Mary Ellen Renna, Md.

A Silent Epidemic That Is Harming Our Children

Long Island-based Mary Ellen Renna, M.D. is a board certified pediatrician who has made early childhood nutrition and exercise a priority in her practice. She is a senior and founding partner in the pediatric practice of Renna, Sachse and Shapiro in Woodbury.

There is a silent epidemic spreading throughout America. It is insidious and ravaging, and its victims are our children.

What is it? Obesity in children has emerged as a serious threat to our nation's health. In 1974, only 4% of American children were considered obese. Today, approximately 30% of children are overweight and 15% are obese, and the statistics almost double in certain ethnic groups such as African American, Hispanic and Native Americans. This epidemic has not been reversed despite all we know about good nutrition and the benefits of exercise.

If childhood obesity continues to increase, it could cut at least 2 to 5 years from the average lifespan and could cause our current generation of children to become the first in American history to live shorter lives than their parents.

Medical problems that we doctors once saw mainly in adults age 50 or older are now striking at much younger ages; type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and arthritis.

As a pediatrician, I feel the most likely reason that obesity is an epidemic amongst Americans is because we have been focusing most of our efforts on the wrong population... adults.It appears that once an adult gets into bad habits, they are very difficult habits to break.

The key to good nutrition and a healthier lifestyle is to start at a young age. If we target children and develop these good habits early, the possibility of decreasing future morbidity and mortality is astounding.

An obvious solution has been to try to get our children outdoors, off the computers, away from the TV and video games and to try and teach them about healthy food choices.

Teaching healthy behaviors at a young age is important since change becomes more difficult with age. Behaviors involving physical activity and nutrition are the cornerstone of preventing obesity in children and adolescents. Family is the most critical link in providing the foundation for those behaviors.

Studies reveal how our children are being fed improperly-with too much fat and sugar and too little fruits and vegetables. Too many children grow up believing that French fries are a staple in the vegetable family.

A national survey of parents indicated that almost 70 percent want their children to have good nutrition and eating habits. However, only 40 percent said they've succeeded in this area of parenting. Why the discrepancy?

Most parents don't practice what they preach: Only 51 percent of parents rate exercising and being physically fit as absolutely essential to impress on their children. In addition, more than nine out of ten parents say they let their child eat junk food. It is important to remember that there are healthy alternatives for nearly every kid-favorite food.

Parents are the most important role models for children. It is important to involve the whole family in meal planning, exercise and family outings. Participation by the entire family will ensure that everyone will be motivated to stay fit and healthy.

Get your children to exercise at least three times a week, 60 minutes per day. It doesn't have to be for an hour session-in fact, it's a lot easier to break it up into 6 sessions of 10-15 minutes each day.

If we want our children to be healthy, we must set the standard for good nutrition and eating habits. There's no better time than in early childhood to start a lifelong commitment to your child's fitness and nutrition habits. You'll be giving your children the gift of a longer and healthier life.

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