Why Merilee Kern is Taking Action to Help America's Kids



It's a downward spiral. With childhood obesity becoming a nationwide epidemic, parents are in need of advice on how to address the issue of excess weight gain and lack of exercise. For children, the physical and psychological effects of being overweight are long lasting and potentially deadly. While the issue of weight problems in children has become a "hot-button" topic for countless families, far too many don't have adequate information or resources when it comes to teaching their kids healthy eating and fitness habits.

It's certainly not easy being a kid in today's complex culture where children have it tougher than their parents did, health-wise. Not only do they have to negotiate any number of social landmines at school, but overweight and obese children also have challenges, social and otherwise, far beyond those for typical adolescents. Today's overweight kids, of which there are many, more frequently have to deal with the discrimination of their peers and scrutiny from adults.

What we all must understand is that placing - and displacing - blame doesn't lessen a child's suffering, nor does it make a child any healthier. And, we must not simply resign ourselves to believing that genetics are accountable for a child's weight problem and, therefore, do nothing. Rather, we must teach America's kids to navigate through society's overabundance and easy access to junk foods and fast foods, and to make sound choices regarding their nutrition and fitness. Parents lobbying for more physical education courses at school is a good start, but is simply not enough.

What often gets missed in the discussions surrounding childhood obesity is that healthy living is a family affair. Children whose parents adopt a healthy lifestyle are more likely to lose weight and maintain their weight loss. Accordingly, parents need a plan that's focused on their children's unique needs, tastes and preferences. The ideal program is not about a restrictive diet; it's about lifestyle modifications that instill healthy dietary and physical fitness behaviors that will turn into healthful habits for the rest of their lives. Of course we want kids to be kids and enjoy life, but an overweight or obese child is at risk, and needs help attaining a healthy weight.

As with adults, there is no quick, easy weight loss fix for children. In order to solve a child's weight problem, parents need to help the child help him or her self, by modifying and managing dietary intake, physical activity and lifestyle behaviors. Monitoring what and how much your child is eating is part of the course, but parents must also emphasize physical activity as part of the child's daily routine. Activity is just another word for exercise; when children are active; they're burning calories and staying fit. Whether it's time spent at the playground, riding bikes around the neighborhood, or an afternoon on the soccer field, make exercise fun and your kids will want to partake. As importantly, give your kids the emotional support to keep them motivated - especially when the going gets tough (as it will).

Parents and children, themselves, need to act now. America's kids are at risk for the many complications of overweight and obesity. This is no small problem, as obesity is known to contribute to devastating diseases and emotional depression. For the health of our nation and all of our futures, we must provide our children with the basics: the knowledge of how to live a healthy lifestyle and the desire to do just that.

Consider these startling Childhood Obesity Facts & Figures:

A growing number of America's school-age children struggle with weight issues

  • Fifteen percent of children ages 6-19 are overweight (approximately 9 million); another 15 percent are considered at risk of becoming overweight. - National Center for Health Statistics
  • The number of overweight children 12 -19 has increased 50% in 10 years-National Center for Health Statistics
  • U.S. teens are more overweight than youth in 14 other countries -- National Institutes of Health
  • Forty percent of New York City public school students are overweight and 24% are obese - New York City Health Department

It has long been recognized that obesity "runs in the family"

  • Children and adolescents who have parents that are obese are more likely to also become obese adults.
  • Likewise, a family history of obesity increases a child's chances of weight problems -- American Academy of Pediatrics
  • For young children, if one parent is obese, the odds ratio is approximately 3 for obesity in adulthood, but if both parents are obese, the odds ratio increases to more than 10 -- American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Before 3 years of age, parental obesity is a stronger predictor of obesity in adulthood than the child's weight status -- American Academy of Pediatrics

Overweight children often grow into overweight adults

  • The probability of childhood obesity persisting into adulthood is estimated to increase from approximately 20% at 4 years of age to 80% by adolescence -- American Academy of Pediatrics
  • A child's obesity will probably continue on through adulthood, contributing to limited athletic abilities and impaired-self esteem, as well as more health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even premature death -- National Institute of Health
  • Many adult diseases like cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes mellitus, menstrual irregularity and depression are caused by an adult's obesity, which probably was started in either childhood or adolescence -- American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Obesity is the leading modifiable risk factor for type 2 diabetes and is associated with the increase of type 2 diabetes among children - American Diabetes Association
  • Over 60% of overweight children between 5 and 10 years of age are already at risk for cardiovascular disease -- American Academy of Pediatrics
  • The majority of the adult U.S. population, about 65%, is considered overweight or obese -- Centers for Disease Control

Early intervention will help reverse the prevalence of overweight children, but it is not enough.

  • Fifteen percent of all children between the ages of 6 and 19 are at or above the 95th percentile for age and gender adjusted BMI [Body Mass Index], with even higher rates among minorities and economically disadvantaged children -- Centers for Disease Control
  • Children younger than 5 years across all ethnic groups have significant increases in the prevalence of overweight and risk for overweight conditions -- Centers for Disease Control
  • Only 28% of high school students attended physical education classes on a daily basis in 2003 -- Centers for Disease Control
  • Today, a child averages 6 hours of television and video game playing a day. Children and adolescents who watch more than 2 hours of television or play video games also fall under the high-risk category for obesity -- American Academy of Pediatrics

And, it doesn't stop there....

The following are key findings from a 2004 childhood obesity-related survey conducted by e-Health industry leader eDiets.comŽ:

  • Parents blame society for the rise in childhood obesity. The top three responses given for the rise in childhood obesity were fast food (27%), computers and/or video games (21%), and reliance on convenience foods (19%).
  • Parents are frustrated with the food choices their children face at school. Three-quarters of parents displayed extreme dissatisfaction with the food currently served in their children's school, with 42% acknowledging that "it's not nearly as healthy as I'd like it to be" and 25% responding with "I pack my children's lunch - what does that tell you?
  • Children's knowledge is just as unhealthy as their habits. When asked how much their children seem to know about nutrition and fitness, most affirmed that it leaves much to be desired; 43% claimed that "they have a few healthy habits, but I still worry," and 31% affirmed that although "they do have some basic knowledge, it doesn't seem to matter.
  • Parents are struggling to improve their children's health. Many parents reported roadblocks to their success, stating that either they "struggle to find the best ways to help them" (46%) or they "often end up doing what makes them happy, even if it's unhealthy" (24%). Their tactics have ranged from "sneaking healthy foods into their kids' diet" to "limiting candy and soda to a minimum," methods that fail to instill healthy habits.
  • Poor health and fitness affect children's self-esteem. 44% of parents reported that "at times it seems to bother them - especially as they've gotten older.
  • Families as a whole tend to ignore healthy living. Maintaining one's health seems to be less important for families; the top three assessments indicated that "it's not a priority for any of us" (25%), "we used to have better habits, but over time we've all gotten lazy" (17%), and "it leaves much to be desired" (14%).
  • There is a hot debate on taxing junk foods. A third of respondents believed that an ideal solution would be to tax all junk foods, "including sodas, candy and fast food" (30%). More than half (58%) believed that "it's our fault if we consume too much".
  • We're continually seeking credible information sources. Parents' top three sources of nutrition and fitness information are the Internet, pediatricians, and books/magazines. Miniscule amounts of respondents feel they can turn to teachers, nutritionists, or other educational tools for help.