Why childhood obesity is such a major concern lies within one simple comment from Dr. Robin Spangler, of UPMC Susquehanna.
“Children who are obese tend to become adults who are obese,” she said. “And adults who are obese tend to have a wide variety of health issues, including diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease and so much more.”
Seeking healthcare to curb childhood obesity, however, can be a difficult task, admitted Dr. Jennifer Francheschelli Hosterman, of Geisinger.
“If you have an asthma attack, it is a reminder to go to the doctor, but being overweight or having high blood pressure doesn’t hurt right away — but crops up more in adulthood as an issue,” she said. “If you can prevent weight gain, or diagnose and treat it sooner rather than later, you are more likely to develop a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index).”
There are two root issues behind childhood obesity in the region, according to Spangler.
“Kids are more sedentary than they used to be. It was normal for kids to go out and play all day — now they are more likely to sit in front of screens, phones and TVs,” she said. “Also, diets have changed. Families eat out a lot more often and portion sizes have gotten out of control. Plus, kids are drawn to sugary drinks.”
Addressing childhood obesity requires a change in the home, factoring in everyone in the family for long-term success, according to Hosterman.
“It means making a commitment to act now — not next week or Monday,” she said. “Also, if kids feel it is something they can do with their parents, it becomes a team effort with a built-in support system. If the kids see their parents on the treadmill, they are more likely to want to try it, too.”
Changing meal plans at home should be a gradual shift, adding more vegetables, fresh fruit and water while phasing out junk food and high-calorie drink options, according to Elizabeth Swartz, who lost more than 100 pounds via bariatric intervention and universal support from her family.
“This has been something we’ve committed to doing together — we don’t make special meals for just me. We all eat healthier,” she said, adding that they’ve learned a few tricks along the way. “If you leave a plate of cookies on the counter, it will get eaten. We are more mindful of what we leave laying around. Also, we don’t have extra food at the table. We prepare our plates in the kitchen and then take them to the table so we’re aren’t as tempted to grab extra.”
If you have children who are obese, be mindful of what they may be facing at school and other peer groups, urged Dr. Anthony Ragusea, of Evangelical.
“Kids are the ones who get the brunt of the bullying and are the least prepared to cope with it. It really puts them in a bad situation, and they may feel powerless to do anything about it,” he said. “Some kids may try to take their own control of the situation — that may come in a healthy way such as attending a weight-loss camp, or it can manifest in unhealthy ways, such as restricting food intake, purging and other behaviors associated with eating disorders.”
As with adults, there may be mental health ties in some children to issues of obesity, which is why Ragusea recommended a multi-disciplinary team approach to making life changes.
“You want to make it about getting healthy,” he said. “Kids at that age are so self-conscious already about how they look.”