Obesity rates among children ages 2-19 have tripled since 1980, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga. That means 17 percent, or 12.5 million, children are too fat. Narrow the age range from 6-17, and the percentage pops to 18 percent.
The rising tide of obesity includes babies. About 10 percent of infants and toddlers have high weights for length, and slightly over 20 percent of children aged 2-5 are already overweight or obese, according to the CDC.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health states that annual body mass index checks are mandatory for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Those in the 85-95 percentile are considered overweight. Those in the 95 percentile and above are considered obese.
In 2006-2007, BMI measurements were taken of 5,245 students in Carbon County schools in kindergarten through sixth grades. Of those, 900, or 17.16 percent, were overweight, and 960, or 18.30 percent, were obese.
By 2009-2010, the numbers of overweight of obese children had grown. Of 5,184 students in kindergarten through sixth grades who were measured, 829, or 15.9 percent, were overweight, and 1,058, or 20.41 percent, were obese.
School districts are moving to head off obesity. For example, the Panther Valley School District is holding nutrition and health fairs, having children commit to health and fitness goals of their own choosing.
The gym teacher provides time during enrichment period for each class to be able to come to PE Club for extra activity, and received a grant from a retired teachers organization to buy pedometers for student use. Panther Valley also incorporates health and fitness into its daily curriculum, including the NFL's Play 60 campaign, which calls for 60 minutes of exercise a day.
The excess avoirdupois is leading children into diabetes, gallstones and high blood pressure at ever younger ages, experts say.
"In the United States alone, one-third of adults are now obese, and the prevalence of obesity among children has risen from 5 to 17 percent in the past 30 years ... Obesity is associated with major causes of death and disability, and its effect on predisposing individuals to the development of type 2 diabetes is so strong that the onset of this disease now is occurring in childhood," says a report by the Institute of Medicine, provided by Dr. Shiriki K. Kumanyika, Professor of Epidemiology, Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and Associate Dean of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention for the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Health care providers are becoming alarmed at the rapid increase in diabetes among children. The disease has spiraled more than 20 percent since 2001.
Type 2 diabetes is linked to obesity and lack of exercise. Type 1 diabetes is an auto immune disease.
"Both types of diabetes are increasing," said Dr. Dana Dabelea, associate dean for faculty affairs at the University of Colorado School of Public Health in Aurora. "For type 2, we have some clues as to why it's increasing, but for type 1, we still need to better understand the triggers of this disease."
According to the CDC, about 151,000 people below the age of 20 years have diabetes. The American Diabetes Association says that 215,000, or 0.26 percent, of all under age 20 have diabetes. That's about one in every 400 children and adolescents.
"When diabetes strikes during childhood, it is routinely assumed to be type 1, or juvenile-onset diabetes. However, in the last two decades, type 2 diabetes (formerly known as adult-onset diabetes) has been reported among U.S. children and adolescents with increasing frequency," the CDC website states.
Diabetes isn't the only affliction linked to overweight.
An Aug. 24 article in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition cited an increase in gallstones in fat children.
A study done by the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research and Evaluation found that overweight children were twice as likely to have gallstones as those who were within normal weight ranges. The risk was four times higher in moderately obese children and six times higher in extremely obese children.
Further, the obesity-gallstones link was stronger in girls: Obese girls were six times more likely to have the condition than underweight or normal weight girls, and the risk was eight times higher in extremely obese girls. Obese and extremely obese boys were more than two and three times more likely, respectively, to have gallstones than underweight or normal-weight boys, the study found.
The study looked at more than 510,000 children between the ages of 10 to19.
"Although gallstones are relatively common in obese adults, gallstones in children and adolescents have been historically rare," study lead author Corinna Koebnick said in a Kaiser news release. "These findings add to an alarming trend – youth who are obese or extremely obese are more likely to have diseases we normally think of as adult conditions."
As the obesity rate rises, so does blood pressure. A study by physicians funded by the National Institutes of Health found that the numbers of children hospitalized for high blood pressure is rising, nearly doubling from 12,661 in 1997 to 24,602 in 2006.
According to the CDC, sugary soft drinks, heavy advertising of junk food aimed at children, too much screen time, increasing portion sizes and a lack of support for breastfeeding all contribute to childhood obesity.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute research found that 20 years ago, a two-slice serving of pizza came to about 500 calories. Today, two slices weigh in at about 850 calories. In the early 1980s, a bottle of soft drink was typically about 6.5 ounces and held 85 calories worth of liquid. Today, soft drink bottles are typically 20 ounces, and hold 250 calories of soda.
Not that long ago, children came home from school (after walking to and from a bus stop and taking gym class), changed clothes and went outside to play before having dinner with their parents. Today, children are far more likely to be picked up by the school bus at their front door, then come home to play video games while snacking. Many schools have dropped gym class, and some have even curtailed or done away with recess.
Ounce of prevention
It's far easier to start children off slim than to try to get them to lose weight. The Institute of Medicine recommends children be kept active throughout the day, and offered diets rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in high calorie and junk foods. The amount of time children spend in front of the television or playing video games should also be limited. Children also need adequate sleep each night.
The National Institutes of Health suggests offering five servings of fruits and vegetables a day; choosing healthy sources of protein, such as lean meat, nuts and eggs; serving whole-grain breads and cereals because they are high in fiber; broiling, grilling or steaming foods instead of frying; limiting fast food and junk food; and offering water and milk instead of sugary fruit drinks and sodas.