Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Childhood obesity a cause for parents' concern

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What is the greatest tragedy that can befall parents? It's that a child will die before they do. It's tragic when this happens and we may see it more often.

Many years ago I attended a service in Westminster Abbey in London, England. I can't recall the sermon. But I do remember seeing chubby choir boys. I realized then how obesity was starting to affect children. Since then several studies have shown the growing extent of childhood obesity.

One study involved 5,517 Grade 5 students in 291 public schools in Nova Scotia. Of these students 32.9 per cent were overweight and 9.9 per cent obese. One in 10 is a frightening figure.

We don't need any more reports of what common sense should tell everyone. Students were less obese when schools had regular physical education classes. Several asinine reasons are given for why they no longer exist. Some school boards in low-income areas claim to have no funds to purchase recreation and gymnastic equipment or no time for such activity.

But preventive measures against obesity don't all require money and time. We know that children of families who eat together regularly are less likely to be overweight or obese. Dining together prevents children from eating in front of television. Researchers found that TV munching often leads to what they called "mindless eating" with increased caloric intake. We've all seen that scenario.

If a child is driven to school instead of walking, this routine adds pounds. So do soft drinks if they're available at school. And the study shows that if the household income is under $60,000, there's a greater chance a child will be overweight.

The problem that should worry parents and society is that obese children are starting to show medical problems that used to be seen primarily in adults.

Dr. Noel Merz, a Los Angeles cardiologist, reported this problem at a meeting of The American College of Cardiology. She pointed out that children are exposed to a diet high in calories.

"Only in North America can we manufacture a reduced-fat Oreo (cookie) that actually has more fat than the original one," Merz said.

Today doctors are now seeing fatty degeneration of the liver in teenagers.

Another California study showed that 37 per cent of Latino children had elevated blood cholesterol and 14 per cent suffered from rising blood pressure.

This portends big trouble down the road. Already there's shocking physical evidence of what's happening. For instance, Dr. Jacques Bart, another California researcher, reported that ultrasound of carotid arteries showed thickened atherosclerotic walls in 11 per cent of adolescents studied. This finding would normally be seen only in adults.

The presence of thickened carotid arteries also means thickened atherosclerotic coronary arteries. The terrible truth is that obese children are developing adult diseases early in life. And it does not take deep thinking to predict that many will succumb before their parents from diabetes, heart attack and stroke.

It should be top priority for health authorities to find the funds for schools in low-income areas to encourage children to participate in sports. It makes no sense to penny-pinch on schoolyard equipment and then spend millions later treating fatal diseases that should never happen.

But in the final analysis it's parents that must become proactive in school matters. Remember, it's your child that's in danger. I know one group of parents in Toronto who recently raised $20,000 for outdoor school equipment.

There's no secret to prevent clogging in children's arteries. Common sense tells us that children should start using their legs and stop mindless munching in front of the TV. Parents should toss out packaged foods loaded with sugar and salt. And how many kitchens have a calorie book to show how calories mount up? Or a bathroom scale to monitor weight? It's biologically unnatural for children to die before their parents, especially from preventable causes. Regrettably, it will happen.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2010 A27

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