Childhood Obesity in Austin Texas

EVEN AUSTIN’S LITTLEST KIDS ARE TOO FAT,
STUDY SAYS OVERWEIGHT STARTS IN INFANCY

Study after study points to the fact that children in Austin, Texas, have a real problem with obesity.

The latest one is the first to examine obesity in three-year-olds. Austin was one of twenty U.S. cities participating in research funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The results of this study will appear in the February 2007 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The study found that among the general population, about 10 percent of children ages 2 to 5 are overweight or obese. Among children that age from low-income families, 35% are overweight or obese. A child is overweight if he or she weighs more than 85% of other children of the same age and sex.

“It startles people to hear that three-year-olds are obese,” said Rachel Kimbro, the study’s lead author. “The problem gets magnified as children age.”

Austin’s problem may be greater than the other nineteen cities in the study. According to the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, 28% of Austin’s kindergarteners are overweight or obese.

Overweight little children grow up to be overweight older children and then overweight adults. Dr. Adolfo Valadez, medical director of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, said that an overweight six-year-old has a 25 percent chance of becoming an overweight adult. If that child is still too heavy at age twelve years, he or she has a 75 percent chance of being overweight as an adult.

“I’m seeing 10-and 11-year-olds who weigh over 200 pounds,” Dr. Daniel Hale said. “This is absolutely becoming routine in our practice.”

Dr. Hale is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

“These kids will have strokes and heart attacks in their twenties and thirties,” he went on. “The diseases we thought of as being problems in their grandparents are on their way to being diseases in their grandchildren. That’s scary.”

The Robert Wood Johnson study found that childhood obesity might start in infancy. For example, if a baby goes to bed with a bottle, he or she is twice as likely to become too fat by age three.

Texan children are among the fattest in the United States. About 42 percent of the state’s fourth graders, 39 percent of the eighth-graders and 36 percent of eleventh-graders are either overweight or at risk for overweight. What’s worse is that the percentages of overweight children in Texas keep increasing every year.

As these children grow up, they will place big demands on health care systems. Being overweight is associated with heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, diabetes, gallbladder disease, asthma, sleep disorders, and cancers of the cervix, colon, gallbladder, kidney, ovary and breast. Being overweight shortens a person’s life by three to twenty years.

Researchers at the University of Texas Austin School of Nursing are trying to find ways to help the city’s overweight children.

Dr. Diane Tyler, associate professor of clinical nursing, began a two-year study in May 2006 to help the area’s overweight children become healthy. She and her team are monitoring sixty children ages eight to twelve years old at two school-based health centers near Austin in the city of Del Valle and Hays County. Children keep records of their food choices as well as time spent in front of computers and television screen. The researchers also counsel them about healthy food and exercise, supplying them with pedometers, jump ropes, and other sports equipment. The team will keep track of the children’s blood pressure, insulin and glucose levels and other fitness indicators over the course of the study.

Dr. Tyler said that the idea is to motivate parents and children to make changes.

“Given all that is out there – computers, videos, DVDs, fast food, large serving sizes,” she said, “the question is how can we as health providers encourage more physical activity and better eating?”

Texas legislators have passed several new laws to help overweight children. For example, this year all schoolchildren must have at least 135 minutes of exercise a week. Another new law requires all children to be screened for acanthosis nigricans, a skin condition that can be a sign of diabetes.

Changes at schools are not enough, however. Most experts on childhood obesity believe that changes must start in a child’s home life. According to a paper published by the Texas A&M University Extension Services, childhood obesity is only partly genetic and mostly a result of overeating and lack of exercise. Parents can restrict sugary foods like sodas and candy, decrease the time that children spend in front of television and other “screens,” and enroll their children in physical activities like sports.

If nothing seems to help, parents consider seeking professional help. Talk to your doctor, but remember that no diet pills are safe for children. If your child’s health is at risk, you may consider enrolling him or her in a professional treatment program geared to your child’s age group. A good one, such as a summer weight-loss camp, should have registered dieticians, psychologists, and other professionally trained experts in the field. Avoid old-style fat camps; find a weight loss camp that uses scientifically based nutritional, educational and therapeutic methods.

References

Austin Travis County Health and Human Services Department. “Implementation of Steps to a Healthier Austin/Travis County Cooperative Agreement,” Coordinated Approach to Health; Fitness Gram; AIDS Middle School Study.

“The Burden of Being Overweight & Obesity in Texas 2000-2040: A Study by the Texas Department of Health,” posted at http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/phn/pdf/Cost_Obesity_Report.pdf

“Families with overweight children subject of new study at University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing,” May 24, 2006, The University of Texas, posted at http://www.utexas.edu/nursing/html/research/news/06/helping.html

“Helping Your Child Lose Weight,” The American Academy of Pediatrics, posted at http://familydoctor.org/343.xml

Hoelscher, DM, Perez A, Lee ES, Sanders J, Kelder SH, Day RS, Ward J. Physical Activity and Nutrition (SPAN) III Survey 2004-2005, UT School of Public Health, Houston.

“Is Your Child at Risk? Obesity, Acanthosis Nigrica Type 2 Diabetes,” Texas Family and Consumer Sciences, The Texas Extension Service, Texas A&M University,

Roser, Mary Ann. “Study Details Obesity in Three-Year-Olds,” Cox News Service, December 29, 2006

“Weight Loss Tips for Overweight Kids,” see http://pediatrics.about.com/library/bl_quick_weight_loss.htm

     “Helping Your Child Lose Weight,” The American Academy of Pediatrics, posted at http://familydoctor.org/343.xml

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