Five years ago, First Lady Michelle Obama brought the epidemic of childhood obesity to the forefront by launching the Let’s Move campaign – a nationwide initiative promoting healthier lifestyles in children. While progress has been made at both the national and state level, there is still much to be done to ensure the health of future generations.
Overweight vs. Obese
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children and teens with a body mass index between the 85th and 95th percentiles are considered overweight. Children with a BMI at or above the 95th percentile are considered obese.
The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) ranked Oklahoma 26th in the nation for high school obesity. The survey estimated 11.8 percent of Oklahoma high school students were obese – revealing a five percent drop from 17 percent in 2011. While these numbers seem encouraging, there are alarming reports of childhood obesity in Oklahoma’s grade-school children.
Dr. Ashley Weedn is a pediatrician and the medical director for Healthy Futures, an OU Children’s Physicians clinic in Oklahoma City that specializes in childhood fitness and healthy eating habits.
“Oklahoma has limited data on childhood obesity statistics since we do not collect measured data at a state level, in contrast to several states which promote or mandate state-wide BMI screenings,” says Weedn.
She points out that the YRBS percentages are estimates based on self-reports of height and weight and, as a result, may not represent the true state of childhood obesity in Oklahoma.
“Obesity prevalence is more accurate – and higher than self or parental report – when based on the child’s measured height and weight,” she says.
For comparison, Weedn explains that the state’s Women, Infants and Children program measures heights and weights for all low-income, preschool-aged children in Oklahoma, and elementary schools participating in the Schools for Healthy Lifestyles program collect measured height and weight for school-aged children.
Obesity in childhood is progressive. Preschool-aged children who have excess weight have a five times higher risk of obesity during adolescence, and 90 percent of obese teenagers become obese adults.
“Among Oklahoma preschool-aged children ages 2 to 4 years participating in the state WIC program, 31 percent were overweight and 14 percent were obese in 2009,” says Weedn. “Among children ages 9 to 11 years in Oklahoma with measured heights and weights through school programs, 25 percent were obese and 44 percent were overweight in 2010. The numbers indicate we have a more severe problem of childhood obesity in Oklahoma than reported through survey-reported data.”
According to Weedn, childhood obesity is a complex condition resulting from multiple factors, including personal and family risk factors and the child’s home, school and community environment.
“Established personal and family risk factors include parental obesity, race and ethnicity, formula feeding during infancy and inadequate sleep duration,” she says, adding that excess screen time, dietary behaviors and activity also play a significant role in developing childhood obesity.
A Life-long Struggle
“Obesity in childhood is progressive. Preschool-aged children who have excess weight have a five times higher risk of obesity during adolescence, and 90 percent of obese teenagers become obese adults,” says Weedn. “Adults who were obese as children have higher risks of developing early-onset heart disease and diabetes, leading to premature death. Unfortunately, we already see high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, high cholesterol and multiple other chronic conditions in children, several of whom require medical management. Additionally, obese children suffer from psychosocial problems, including weight-based teasing, low self-esteem and depression, all affecting the child’s quality of life.”
Dr. Sowmya Krishnan, a pediatric endocrinologist with OU Children’s Physicians, also emphasizes that children with obesity will experience more health complications at a younger age.
“There is higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure in obese children,” says Krishnan. “These diseases are increasingly being seen in children, where once these were considered adult diseases.”