Over the past five years, researchers, nutritionists, and politicians have been calling attention to the growing national crisis of childhood obesity. This generation of children is frequently referred to as the Supersize Generation. Indeed, during the past three decades, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for children ages two to five and twelve to nineteen, and it has more than tripled for children ages six to eleven. At present, approximately 10% of children ages two to five are considered obese (Trifiletti, Shields, Bishai, McDonald, Reynaud, and Gielen, 2006).
Obesity refers to excess fatty tissue in the body (Bright Futures, 2006). Children are deemed obese if their weight is more than 20 percent greater than the ideal weight for a boy or girl of their age and height (University of Michigan Health System, 2007). Even though the terms obesity and overweight are frequently used interchangeably, there are actually three ways of accurately determining obesity:
- Height and weight plotted on a growth chart
- Skin-fold thickness measured on the back of the upper arm with special calipers
- Body/mass index (BMI) determined by a mathematical calculation involving height and weight (This is the formula for body/mass index: BMI = [(Weight in pounds/ (Height in inches) x (Height in inches)) x 703]. However, because children's body fat changes over the years and because maturing girls and boys differ in body fat, the BMI for children and teens is plotted on gender-specific growth charts.
Obesity is prevalent in both developed and developing countries, reflecting changes in behavioral patterns, such as decreased physical activity and overconsumption of high-fat, energy-dense foods. Many other individuals become obese because of a biological predisposition to gain weight readily (Deitel, 2003). Current research into childhood obesity reveals numerous causes:
- Birth weight
- Obesity in one or both parents
- More than eight hours TV a week at age three
- Sleeping less than 10.5 hours a night at age three
- Size in early life—measured at age eight and eighteen months
- Rapid weight gain in the first year of life
- Rapid catch-up growth between birth and age two
- And early development of body fat in preschool years—before the age at which it should be increasing (at the age of five to six) (Daily News Central, 2005).
What can you, as an early childhood professional, do to help children and parents win the obesity war? You can start by reviewing the following ten suggestions and commit to supporting them in your early childhood program:
- Encourage breakfast. If your school or program does not provide breakfast for children, be an advocate for starting to do that. Providing school breakfasts can be both a nutritional and an educational program.
- Provide healthy snacks instead of junk food. And advocate for healthy foods in school and program vending machines.
- When cooking with children, talk about foods and their nutritional value. Cooking activities are also a good way to eat and talk about new foods.
- Integrate literacy and nutritional activities. For example, reading and discussing labels is a good way to encourage children to be aware of and think about nutritional information.
- Make meals and snack times pleasant and sociable experiences (New York State Department of Health, 2006).
- Provide parents with information about nutrition. For example, you can make parents aware of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s individualized food pyramid. You might access the pyramid online, have children enter their own data, and then have them share their individualized pyramids with their parents.
- Help families understand and practice healthy eating habits (New York State Department of Health, 2006). Encourage parents to set a healthy example for their families so that they can help their young children develop healthy eating habits.
- Counsel parents to pull the plug on the television. TV watching is associated with obesity because children are more likely to snack on fattening foods while they watch and children who watch a lot of television tend to be less physically active. Inactivity promotes weight gain.
- Encourage exercise. You can provide daily opportunities for physical exercise and physical activities in your program, maximizing large-motor muscle activity, such as jumping, dancing, marching, kicking, running, riding a tricycle, or throwing a ball (New York State Department of Health, 2006). National obesity experts are now recommending that children engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day (Associated Press, 2005).
- Be a role model. You can set a good example for children to follow by modeling appropriate behaviors, such as enjoying a variety of foods, being willing to taste new foods, and enjoying physical activity (Preventing Childhood Obesity).
You can do a lot to promote children’s health. Do not blame the parents, but work with them to enable them and their children to lead healthy lives.
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