Tackling childhood obesity a local concern

Story posted March 1, 2013 in News by Leah Polakoff

The Centers for Disease Control say about 17 percent of U.S. children are overweight or obese.  That means some 3,900 out of Centre County’s 23,000 children could be struggling with their weight.

Linda Eggebeen, the State College Area School District’s coordinator for health education and physical education, said she believes the number of overweight children is growing because of changing times.

“I used to go run around outside after school. Kids today either go to day care or parents don’t feel comfortable letting their kids go outside alone -- and that’s a concern,” she said.

During the 2011-2012 school year, the body mass indexes of 7,578 students in the State College Area School District were tested.  The results showed that 1,936 students – 25.5 percent -- were considered overweight or obese.

The percentage is close to that of Pennsylvania for children ages 10 to 17 – 29.7 percent  -- according to a report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

State College Area schools provide physical education for students in 40-minute classes once a week. But Eggebeen, who has been a physical education teacher since 1997, stressed that it is not enough and that it is important for students to get physical activity every day during school.

“After a stint of physical activity, oxygen is flowing to the brain and you’re in a better mood. It’s easier to stay concentrated on a hard task for a long period of time,” Eggebeen said.

She suggested that children take part in family activities that involve physical activity in order to keep moving. Playing in intramural sports, going on family hikes or tossing a Frisbee in the backyard are good ways to help children be healthy and prevent weight gain at an early age, she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one-third of adolescents do not get the recommended levels of moderate or physical activity each day, and 10 percent of children are inactive.

Along with lack of exercise, the American diet is being blamed for the growing number of overweight children. Health and Human Services says that only 21 percent of children get the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables each day, and the number of children who eat food outside of their home is increasing.

In August, the United States Department of Agriculture issued new regulations for school lunch menus. Cafeterias are to serve fewer calories, more fruits and vegetables and fewer proteins and carbohydrates.

While some schools received backlash from students because of the changes, Megan Schaper, food service director for the State College Area School District, said the district didn’t receive the same reaction.

“Because our school meals previously met most of the new meal requirements, the changes we had to make this year were less dramatic that what was experienced in some other schools.  We didn't have the strong backlash that some school districts saw.  But our participation is down 3 percent from last year,” she said.

BeWell Associates nutrition consultant Angie Wallace often works with children and their families on incorporating more fruits, vegetables, proteins and healthy fats into meals. She said enforcing healthy eating habits early in life is crucial.

Wallace is a fan of community-supported agriculture, known as CSAs, which allow families to buy food from local farmers who put together baskets of produce each week and will deliver or have the customer pick it up.

She said she believes in eating fresh food as much as possible and that processed and genetically modified foods loaded with sugar are big contributors to childhood obesity.  The World Health Organization says processed food is a main reason that more than 40 million children under the age of five were overweight in 2010.

Wallace recommends mixing foods that children don’t like into smoothies or sprinkling it into meals with foods they do like to hide the taste. And children should always be trying new foods, she said.

“Once you start eating healthy, your tastes for foods absolutely change. Just because your kid didn’t like something when they were four, doesn’t mean they’re not going to like it when they’re seven,” she said.

Children who eat poorly and don’t get enough exercise are at risk for many health complications later in life. The Centers for Disease Control predicts that if current trends continue, one in three U.S. adults will have diabetes by 2050. Type 2 diabetes, which is preventable, can take up to 10 years to develop.

Overweight children are more likely to be made fun of by their peers, leading to problems such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.  “I’m sure they feel alone,” Eggebeen said. “And they’re children, so they might not know how to deal with their obesity.”

Wallace said to be careful when bringing up the subject of weight with children.

“Adults need to be positive when telling their kids they’re overweight. Make the main focus about being healthy, not about losing weight. Think about what you can do as a family to support the child,” she said.

Food service director Schaper agreed that parents should focus on children simply being healthy, not dieting.

“We’re so focused on obesity, but it’s not the only problem,” she said. “Lots of children aren’t obese, but it doesn’t mean that they are physically fit or properly nourished. We need to talk to kids and parents about broader health and fitness issues that you don’t see.”

“It took us a long time to get to this problem,” Schaper said. “It’s not going to be fixed in one day. You’re not going to change it by going to the park for one day, but it’s where you have to start.”

(Leah Polakoff is a Penn State journalism student.)