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Junk Food, TV Driving Kids to Obesity

Studies find it's tougher than ever for youngsters to stay healthy,,,,

TUEDAY, Sept. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Lifestyles with too little movement, too much TV exposure and way too much junk food are pushing U.S. children toward a life of overweight and obesity, a collection of new studies finds.

The studies -- published in a special supplement of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine -- show the myriad challenges youngsters face every day in trying to maintain a healthy weight. Today's kids live in a world where it's often easier to get a fast food meal than fresh fruit, where walking to school is the exception rather than the norm, and where they're bombarded by ads telling them to eat more junk food and sugary beverages.

"It's a minefield out there for kids," said registered dietitian Alexandra Salazar, a pediatric nutritionist at the Children's Hospital of Montefiore in New York City. "Schools have a big part to play, but kids often aren't offered the best choices at school or in the community. It's up to parents to lead by example."

Almost one in six American children and teens are overweight, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's office, which also warns that 70 percent of overweight teens will grow into overweight or obese adults. Overweight children are now increasingly at risk for type 2 diabetes, a disease formerly associated only with adults. Kids carrying extra pounds may also have a higher risk of developing low self-esteem or depression.

"Were now seeing an epidemic of type 2 diabetes mellitus in children," said Dr. Brenda Kohn, a pediatric endocrinologist at the New York University Medical Center. She noted that other disorders, such as high cholesterol, are also on the rise in heavier youngsters.

Highlights of the studies included in the special supplement include:

  • Many schools offer easy access to junk food and beverages. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that 83 percent of high schools and 67 percent of middle schools now have contracts with a soft drink manufacturer. Revenues from such contracts are modest -- about $500 a year on average for middle schools and about $6,000 for high schools. The study found that Hispanic children were most likely to consume soft drinks.
  • Fewer schools provide students with opportunities to increase their levels of physical activity. In another study from the University of Michigan, researchers found that while almost nine in 10 eighth-graders must participate in physical education, that number drops to just two in 10 by 12th grade. Participation rates were lower for black and Hispanic children, according to the study.
  • Low-income, minority neighborhoods are more likely to have fast-food restaurants compared to high-income, predominantly white neighborhoods, according to researchers from the University of Illinois.
  • One in four TV commercials seen by teens are food ads, according to another University of Illinois study. The most common ads were for fast-food, beverages and sweets. Black adolescents saw about 14 percent more food ads than did their white peers, according to the study.
  • The availability of a large, chain supermarket was associated with a lower body mass index (BMI) in teens. In contrast, high availability of convenience stores was associated with a higher BMI, according to a study done by researchers from both the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan.

"The environment a lot of our kids live in is just plain unhealthy," said Dr. Goutham Rao, clinical director of the weight management and wellness center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, and author of Child Obesity: A Parent's Guide to a Fit, Trim and Happy Child. "Human beings will eat what's easily available and will do what requires the least effort, so if you live where there's no fresh fruit available, you'll probably eat fast food," he said.

"I think that if you want to solve the problem, you have to look at what the root causes are: What are my kids doing that made them obese? What are they missing? Step back and look at some of the basic behaviors. Don't look for magic cures, because there aren't any. Figure out what you are willing to do to change your basic behaviors," suggested Rao.

"The most important thing is to consider what the components of good health are: exercise, eating foods provided by nature, eating lean protein and complex grains," said Kohn.

All three experts strongly advocated increasing your child's physical activity levels. "After dinner, go for a walk. If your kids like to watch videos, encourage them to dance to the music," advised Salazar. Rao said that walking to school is also a great way for kids to get more daily exercise.

"You can't create the perfect environment," said Rao, "but you can make smarter choices."

All three also suggested adding nutrition education into school curriculums to help give children the knowledge they need to make those smarter choices.

More information

To learn more about childhood obesity and steps you can take to help your child, visit the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.

SOURCES: Goutham Rao, M.D., clinical director, Weight Management and Wellness Center, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, Pa., and author, Child Obesity: A Parent's Guide to a Fit, Trim and Happy Child; Brenda Kohn, M.D., pediatric endocrinologist, New York Medical Center, and associate professor, New York University School of Medicine, member of the advisory board of the Juvenile Diabetes Association, New York City; Alexandra Salazar, R.D., pediatric nutritionist, Children's Hospital at Montefiore, New York City; 2007 supplement, American Journal of Preventive Medicine

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