More than 1 in 6 children are obese: How parents and teachers can help

Toddler obesity has declined, say CDC officials, but obesity rates for children and youth remain at 17.5 percent.

Ellen O'Nan/The Sun/AP
Children eat lunch at an elementary school in Kentucky. A recent CDC study reports that 17.5 percent of US children aged 3 to 19 are obese.

While child obesity is problematic, it is largely preventable, say experts.

“Child obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century,” says the World Health Organization. “Prevention is the most feasible option for curbing the childhood obesity epidemic.”

In a study released last week, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 17.5 percent of US children between 3 and 19 years old are obese, a percentage that increased sharply in the 1980s and 90s, but has plateaued over the last decade. Toddler obesity has decreased significantly, staying below 10 percent since 2011.

Studies show that race, parental education level, and income all contribute to childhood obesity, as do culture and environment.

"We think people should be totally independent of the environment around them," said Dr. Deborah Cohen, a natural scientist at the RAND corporation, in an interview with Healthline. "We underestimate its power to influence people."

CDC experts agree: “American society has become characterized by environments that promote increased consumption of less healthy food and physical inactivity,” reports CDC. With limited access to healthy food options and surrounded by ads for unhealthy food, children are exposed to a potentially harmful lifestyle from an early age.

What can be done?

“Encourage healthy eating habits,” say experts with the American Heart Association (AHA). “Small changes can lead to a recipe for success!”

Limiting sugar and fat in children’s diets and promoting physical activity may seem obvious, but it's easier said than done. It's not enough to tell kids about the benefits of healthy eating and physical exercise, warn experts. Parents also have to set a good example.

In addition, it may help to breastfeed exclusively for your baby's first year, say pediatricians with The American Academy of Pediatrics, as studies have shown that breastfed babies have lower rates of obesity as they grow up. Older kids should drink milk and water, says the AAP, and avoid juice and soda. 

Children need to move more, and they're being given less and less time in which to do it, argues Rae Pica, an education consultant, writing for The Huffington Post. "Who's making the decisions to eliminate all physical activity from the school day, where children spend most of their waking hours, despite mounting evidence that children need to move – for the health of both their bodies and their minds? Not the kids. Given a choice they'd happily decide to mix some movement – likely a lot of it – into the day," she writes.

"We can point fingers all we want, but let's be clear," writes Ms. Pica. "Children are suffering [from obesity] as a result of decisions being made for and about them. It's not the kids' responsibility to rid themselves of a problem they're not yet old enough to fully understand.”

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