By Lisa Ferguson
Many local school children will tote excess baggage with them when they head back to school this fall, although the pounds won’t be in the form of giant backpacks stuffed with oversized textbooks.
According to statistics provided by the Clark County Health District, nearly 40 percent of fourth-, seventh- and tenth-grade students in Clark County are considered to be overweight or obese—an unsettling number that is even greater than the national average, which pegs nearly 1 in every 3 children as obese.
The problem isn’t found only among older students: An annual survey conducted by the Nevada Institute for Children’s Research and Policy concluded that between 2008 and 2010, nearly one-third of the state’s kindergarteners were also overweight or obese.
“We do have a serious problem here in Clark County and in the state,” says Nicole Bungum, a supervisor in the health district’s office of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Who—or what—is to blame for this national childhood obesity epidemic? Fingers can be pointed at a number of factors, including steady diets of high-fat fast food; ridiculously large portion sizes; budget cuts that eliminate physical education classes and afterschool sports programs; and more sedentary time spent by kids engaged in electronic entertainment.
The results can be devastating: Children are increasingly being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, a chronic disease formerly referred to as adult-onset diabetes because occurrences were practically unheard of in youngsters. Others will likely battle such obesity-related health issues as asthma, sleep apnea, heart disease, high blood pressure and even cancer.
Add erectile dysfunction to that list. Dr. Lisa Glasser, a pediatrician with Siena Pediatrics in Henderson, says she recently learned that obese teenage boys can grapple with that embarrassing issue. “This actually blew me away,” she says.
As a result of the obesity epidemic, the doctor warns, “We might be looking at the first generation in this country who does not outlive their parents.”
Still, that sobering fact is lost on many parents, Bungum says. “Because we have so many children now that are overweight or obese, I think … we’re almost becoming a little bit distorted in the way we look at what a healthy child is.”
Glasser says she’s seen evidence of that in her practice. “Some parents come in and they clearly do not recognize that there’s a problem with their child’s weight.” Often coupled with that is a lack of knowledge about proper portion sizes, how to read food labels and what qualifies as a healthy food. “They don’t know that drinking tons of fruit juice is not a nutritious way of getting your fruit.”
“The other thing that tends to happen,” Glasser says, “is when kids routinely overeat, they lose a sense of what’s enough and eventually they become completely disconnected from that sensation, so they don’t stop when they’ve had enough.” That’s when parents need to step in. “If you don’t recognize something as a problem, you’re certainly not going to be setting about to fix it.”
And fix it, they must. Leading the charge nationally is first lady Michelle Obama, who in 2010 launched an initiative called Let’s Move!, dedicated to solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation. The program’s goals include educating parents and improving access to affordable, healthy foods; providing healthier meals in the nation’s schools; and helping children boost their physical activity levels. Meanwhile President Barack Obama established the Task Force on Childhood Obesity, the action plan for which is to reduce the nation’s childhood obesity rate to just 5 percent by 2030. Additional information can be found at letsmove.gov.
Bungum credits the first lady and the Let’s Move! program for having “really raised the level of debate in this country around childhood obesity,” and opening up important discussions, such as dismissing the idea that obesity results from individuals’ poor diet and exercise choices. “We need to take a look at the environment in which we live,” she insists. Is it one where parents feel safe allowing their kids to walk to school? Where healthy food choices are readily available? “We have a responsibility as a community to address those types of things.”
Through its Get Healthy Clark County program, the health district has implemented numerous classes and resources for children and adults, which are found at gethealthyclarkcounty.org. There, youngsters can access the Kids Challenge program to help them track how many fruits and vegetables they consume, as well as the amount of exercise they get each day.
The health district has also partnered with the Clark County School District to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables served in school cafeterias and to add 50 local schools to the Safe Routes to School program, which assesses areas around campuses to make walking and biking to school easier and safer for kids.
That complements Glasser’s recommendation that every child get at least one hour of physical activity daily and spend no more than two hours per day in front of any type of “screen—TV, video games, computers, Smartphones, whatever it is.” (Her website, drglasser.com, has links to several nutritional and exercise information resource websites for parents.)
At snack- and mealtimes, she says, kids should consume as many fruits and vegetables as possible and opt for whole grains over white, processed breads and pastas. Water and up to 24 ounces per day of “the least-fat milk they can tolerate” should be kids’ beverages of choice, while juice, sports drinks and sodas should be limited to no more than two cups per week.
“What I tell parents is not to make a million changes at once” to their family’s diet, Glasser says, and instead advises them to “make a list of all the things you’re currently doing really well and then make a list of the (areas where) you need to make improvements” and chose one to work on every few weeks. “It has to be a family effort.”