on childhood obesity

I asked a colleague of mine--a pediatrician, and a mother--to write a post about childhood obesity. This is a topic everyone is talking about; from Michelle Obama to your local YMCA. Is it just a trend, or do we really need to be concerned? Are you ready to meet the challenges she poses for parents as well as physicians at the end?

Please read the following post, contributed by Dr. Hanna Jaworski, a pediatrician who works in our general pediatric clinic, the adolescent medicine program, and as a hospitalist on our pediatric inpatient unit, so you can judge for yourself. and as always, submit your comments to share your feelings on this important topic.

At this time, obesity could be considered the leading cause of morbidity and mortality.  Childhood obesity is an unfortunate growing epidemic; an epidemic which will lead to many other unfortunate health issues. Health issues that were once only chronic adult conditions are now affecting children as young as late childhood and adolescence.  Conditions like Diabetes, Hypertension, Heart Disease, Hyperlipidemia, and Joint disease are becoming ever more common in childhood secondary to obesity. 

Why has this become such an epidemic?
What has changed about our children that now make them so prone to obesity, where 1 in 3 children in the United States is now considered overweight or obese?  This trend has not occurred overnight and is not caused by a simple few factors.  This has been a trend that started over 40 years ago.  Forty years ago the American life was changing from what it had once been.  The baby-boomers were starting their families.  Unlike their parents, these families were more likely to have 2 working parents.  Families were becoming busier and modern conveniences were becoming ever more important in everyday life.  New communities and neighborhoods were being built to house the baby boomer families.  These communities were not built on block systems with sidewalks to central shopping and schools.  Where healthy homemade foods and daily exercise moving around the community were once easy, now were far more difficult to obtain.  Why cook a homemade meal with fresh fruits and vegetables when McDonald’s is on the way home from work and you feel exhausted from a long day?  Why go for a bike ride with your family when you can only go down to the end of your street before you come to the main road which is not safe for the kids?  When it comes to the weekends, there are always house chores to be done and is it really safe to let the kids play outside by themselves?  Who knows how many sex-offenders, child-predators, or drug dealers there might be lurking around.  We do not live in the quintessential life that our parents and grandparents grew up in.  We have to schedule exercise and plan ahead if we want to eat healthy.

So what are we to do about this conundrum? It seems hardly possible to regress society back to the 1950’s. We will simply have to find solutions in the world in which we live today; and isn’t that what humans have always strived for: our advantage of intelligence, to progress forward. And that is what we shall do.
The rules are simple, they always have been:

  • Eat healthy, not too much, and mostly plants
  • Exercise often, daily is best. 
  • Get plenty of rest, and reduce your stress. 
  • Avoid other unhealthy behaviors like smoking and other drug use.

We simply must begin to demand this from our society.   In a free market society, what the people demand most is what the market will produce.  In a democracy, the people elect the governing bodies.  If the populous demands healthy food options, safe neighborhoods, parks, and walking and bike routes, then they will eventually be.  But we cannot stand idle and expect that these events will come of their own, or someone else’s accord.  These changes are the responsibility of each and every one of us.  As each of us chooses to live a healthier life, by perhaps riding our bike to work, or buying apples and carrots instead of soda and chips, we move not only ourselves towards a healthier future, but our communities as well.  Lifestyle changes are always challenging and there will always be barriers.  However, as parents, we often, if not always, place the needs of our children ahead of our own.  As an epidemic of children (and adults), it will be perhaps our children who will provide us with the motivation to overcome the challenges and barriers of living healthy.  As parents recognize the importance of giving our children fruits and vegetables and avoiding calorie laden, nutrient poor foods, parents themselves may begin to eat better as well.  As parents encourage their children to turn off the TV and become active, parents themselves will be more likely to be active as well.  These changes depend on the education and subsequent motivation of parents.  As a pediatrician, I feel that it is the responsibility of the medical community to educate and provide guidance of what a “healthy lifestyle” is for our parents starting from a child’s birth.  It is far easier to start healthy than to wait until bad habits form and then attempt to break them.   I would also challenge my colleagues to consider their own communities: schools, daycares, churches, parks, grocery stores, and restaurants.  What about their communities make healthy living difficult?  Pediatricians must be advocates as well as educators for our families.  Our voices and expertise will support and uphold the demands and needs of a society that desires to live healthier. 

So as someone’s parent, as someone’s pediatrician, and as a member of society, I ask, are you ready to step up to the challenges and progress forward to a healthier life for you, your family, and your community?




About Dr. Ackerman

Alice Ackerman, MD, MBA, FAAP, FCCM is the Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Carilion Clinic and Professor and Founding Chair of Pediatrics at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Dr. Ackerman is recognized nationally as an expert in pediatric critical care.

She has been at Carilion Clinic since June of 2007. Her primary goals are to enhance the health care of children in the Roanoke Valley and Southwest Virginia, and is actively working to do this both as physician in chief of the children's hospital, as well as through involvement with many state-wide initiatives.

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