“We are raising the most overweight, out-of-shape generation of children in history,” says the LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “What is amazing is that the problem worsens, year after year.”
Among children 17 and under, 25 million are obese or overweight, nearly one-third of the 74 million in that age group, according to a 2002 study published in JAMA – The Journal of the American Medical Association (see Prevalence and Trends in Overweight Among US Children and Adolescents (free registration required)).
“Obesity among children is literally an epidemic,” says Borck. “Unless we get kids exercising and teach them to enjoy healthy foods, the outlook for their long-term health is bleak. And this will only contribute to the rising cost of health care.”
Television and children
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), kids in the United States watch about four hours of TV per day. The AAP guidelines state that children older than two should watch no more than one to two hours a day of quality programming.
Television, in moderation, can be a good thing. Preschoolers can get help learning the alphabet on public television; grade-schoolers can learn about wildlife and their surroundings on nature shows. Television can be an excellent educator and entertainer.
However, spending time watching TV can take away from healthy activities like outdoor play with friends, eating dinner together as a family or reading. TV time also takes away from participating in sports, music, art or other activities that require practice to become skillful.
Today, one in three American kids weigh enough to pose a health risk. This is not an individual problem; it is a social and cultural problem.
Today’s sedentary kids are bombarded with enticing messages to eat super-sizes of artificial, high-sugar, high-fat and highly processed nutritional trash. Creating a new health culture built around healthy, natural foods and fun physical activity is a priority. This requires changes in schools, homes, restaurants, advertising and our way of thinking.
According to the AAP, children in the United States see 40,000 commercials each year. From the junk food and toy advertisements during Saturday morning cartoons to the appealing promos on the back of cereal boxes, marketing messages inundate kids of all ages. To the adolescent mind, everything looks ideal and becomes something they simply must have.
Many of these commercials encourage unhealthy eating habits. Two-thirds of the TV ads an average child sees each year are for food, and most are for high-sugar foods.
Generally, children under the age of eight do not understand that the purpose of commercials is to sell products. Children six years and under are unable to distinguish program content from commercials, especially if their favorite character is promoting the product.
The relationship between TV and obesity goes beyond advertising. While watching TV, children are inactive and tend to snack. The constant munching piles on the pounds.
A recent article in New York Times stated that in Arkansas, which has one of the most comprehensive programs targeting this problem, obesity among the 450,000 children in 1,300 public schools has peaked.
Rhonda Sanders of Bryant, (AR) said learning that her daughter, Samantha, had a body mass index (BMI) in the 95th percentile “was a wake-up call, really.”
Samantha, a five-foot tall, 137-pound third grader at the time, started jumping rope and bouncing on the trampoline, while the family also banned eating in front of the television.
“We didn’t do anything life-changing, we didn’t take away every bit of candy and chips, we just put some limits on it,” Ms. Sanders said. Three years later, Samantha’s BMI is in the 50th percentile. She enjoys fruits and vegetables and is on the dance team.
“I know it’s not simple for every child,” Ms. Sanders said, “but because children’s bodies are changing so rapidly, a few changes in the way they eat and their activity level can really make a huge difference.”
What can you do?
Of course, it is nearly impossible to eliminate all exposures to marketing messages. TV time can be limited, but children will still see and hear advertisements at every turn.
Parents can teach children to be savvy consumers by watching television with their children and asking what they think about the products as the ads are seen. Ask thought-provoking questions like, “What do you like about that?” “Do you think it’s really as good as it looks in that ad?” and “Do you think that’s a healthy choice?”
When children ask for products they see advertised, explain that commercials and other ads are designed to make people want things they do not necessarily need. Talking to kids about what these products actually do to their health can help them put things into perspective.
When it comes to making the right food choices for the home, refer to the children’s food pyramid at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for guidance.
Slowly but surely, the private sector and government are becoming more proactive in the battle against childhood obesity. Recently, ten major food and drink makers, including companies such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo, agreed to adopt new voluntary rules for advertising. The companies said they would devote at least half of their advertising directed at children to promote healthier diets and lifestyles.
Also, Federal legislation is being presented to reduce and prevent childhood obesity by encouraging schools and school districts to develop and implement local, school-based programs designed to reduce and prevent childhood obesity, promote increased physical activity and improve nutritional choices.
Obesity can weaken physical health and well-being and can shorten life expectancy. It can also lead to social disabilities and unhappiness, which may cause stress and even mental illness.
The development of a personal identity and body image is an important goal for children and adolescents. Parents, physicians and teachers can help. As a parent, if a child is stressed or unhappy and is developing poor eating habits, it is your responsibility to address this issue before it escalates.
The Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA) recognizes the obesity epidemic and recently issued its first publication on the subject, a manual for trainers – Nutrition and Fitness for Laborers – designed to encourage healthy diet and exercise among Laborers. A section addresses family nutrition as well. A series of additional fitness publications is planned. For this and other materials, please visit the Fund’s online Publications Catalogue.