Pediatrician Dr. Stephen Cook said when he’s talking to parents about ways to ward off childhood obesity, he often asks whether there is a television in their children’s bedrooms.
In addition to contributing to sedentary lifestyles, televisions in the bedroom can result in children eating even if they aren’t hungry, he said.
"The more time in front of a television, the more (food) commercials they see," said Dr. Cook, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Golisano Children’s Hospital in Rochester.
Dr. Cook, a childhood-obesity researcher, said studies have shown the number of obese children has more than tripled in the past two decades. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, 4 percent to 5 percent of children ages 2 to 18 were obese, whereas today, 16 percent to 17 percent of children are obese, he said.
"It’s a tsunami waiting to crash," Dr. Cook remarked of obese children becoming obese adults.
As part of efforts to fight the rise in childhood obesity, the Greater Rochester Health Foundation’s Healthy Hero campaign in Monroe County has awarded child-wellness grants to schools and child-care facilities, lobbied for better food in schools, and is behind a media campaign that promotes five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, a maximum of two hours a day in front of television or computer screens, an hour of physical activity a day, and zero servings of soda and sugary drinks.
"(Many parents) think kids are getting enough physical activity and eating healthy in schools, and we know that’s not the case," said Bonnie C. DeVinney, vice president and chief program officer of the Greater Rochester Health Foundation.
She noted that the 3-year-old health foundation and the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency recently had success in encouraging the Rochester city schools to commit budget dollars toward offering healthier food.
Several other areas of the diocese also have campaigns taking place to fight childhood obesity. For example, Chemung County’s Eat Well, Play Hard coalition, which includes St. Joseph’s Hospital in Elmira, has sponsored programs to increase physical activity and also successfully got Chemung County primary schools to banish soda and sweet drinks in favor of milk and water. Apple consumption in several schools doubled after the coalition provided them with apple peelers and slicers.
Nykole Parks, the wellness coordinator of St. Joseph’s Hospital and the hospital’s representative on the Eat Well, Play Hard coalition, said the focus on childhood obesity is needed now more than ever.
She said doctors are seeing an increasing amount of children who are developing such obesity-related adult health problems as carpal tunnel syndrome, joint problems and sleep apnea.
"We are continually having children and teens diagnosed with (adult onset) type II diabetes, and that’s something that is really across the United States," Parks said.
Dr. Cook said children have a greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and other major health problems in their 30s and 40s rather than later in life if they have at least three of the following risk factors: abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, low HDL (good cholesterol) levels, elevated blood pressure and elevated glucose.
"They are not going to be leading very productive lives at a time when they should be leading productive lives," Dr. Cook said of young adults with health problems.
He said the fix for these risk factors is to encourage parents to teach, and follow themselves, the tenets of healthy living: exercise more, eat better, try to lose weight and get control of stress levels.
DeVinney said parents can be most effective in changing behaviors when they practice what they preach.
"Be a role model for your kids," DeVinney stated.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more tips on child nutrition and play, visit www.catholiccourier.com, www.beahealthyhero.org, http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu and www.eatwellplayhard.org.
Tips to encourage kids to eat healthy foods
To get your kids to eat healthy foods:
* Give healthy food catchy names. Preschoolers ate double their normal amount of carrots in a study by the Cornell University Food and Brand lab when the carrots were called "X-ray vision carrots," and they continued to eat double the carrots on days when the carrots were no longer labeled.
* Eat and drink from smaller packages, bowls and plates. Studies by the Cornell lab show that those who ate from larger-size packages, bowls and plates ate 31 percent more than those eating from regular sized packages, bowls and plates. Few who ate more admitted that they might have eaten more. Likewise, use taller, narrower glasses — consumers tend to pour less into them.
* Pay attention to nutritional information, not marketing. Consumers who thought they were eating at "healthy" restaurants, based on the restaurants’ advertising, estimated that their meals contained 35 percent fewer calories than they actually consumed. They also may underestimate the calories in unhealthy side dishes and beverages ordered with a healthy meal.
* Listen to internal hunger cues. A study of Americans and the French revealed that the French use internal hunger cues to decide when to stop eating, while Americans used external cues, such as when their plate was clean, when they ran out of beverage or when the TV show they were watching was over.
* Try not to compare healthy and unhealthy food for children; remind children how much they enjoy healthy food without mentioning the unhealthy food as much.
* Have healthy food at hand, and banish unhealthy snacks.
* Don’t engage in emotional eating. Studies have shown that a person’s mood can play a role in the amount one eats.
Source: Cornell University Food and Brand Lab