HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

Weighty issues: the big problem no parent wants to discuss

One in three American children is obese, and this generation of kids is expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. Learn how and why you should talk to your child about weight, and what you can do to keep your child healthy.

By Sarah Henry

When Cindy Morris was three, she was put on an anti-seizure medication by her pediatrician. A side effect of the medication, which the toddler was given for six months, was an increased appetite that caused Cindy to gain a whopping 30 pounds — a potentially dangerous jump in body mass for a preschooler.

I could not satisfy her hunger, so I just kept giving her food," says her mother, Melissa Baldan-Carpenter, then a single mom living in North Carolina. "And they weren't necessarily the best choices — things like hot dogs and chips — whatever I had in the house. She was always starving."

Baldan-Carpenter raised concerns about her daughter's ballooning girth with the pediatrician, who assured her that the situation would correct itself once Cindy stopped taking the medication. He cautioned against restricting food — a practice that can backfire and lead to more overeating.

Baldan-Carpenter followed the physician's advice and decided to wait it out, reassuring her child that as she got older she'd begin to thin out. But that never happened. Cindy continued to carry excess weight through elementary school.

Fast forward to February of this year and the 142 pound, 5 foot 4 inch, 11 year old, whose family now lives in San Diego, went shopping to find an outfit for her mom's upcoming wedding. Cindy was too large for dresses in the children's department, but didn't have the bust to fill out any outfits in the junior section. She went home sad and disappointed.

It was after that shopping trip that Baldan-Carpenter, who'd recently begun educating herself about healthy eating, sat down at the computer and ran her daughter's numbers through a body mass index (BMI) calculator.

Cindy, she was shocked to discover, was technically obese. (Note that BMI numbers are interpreted differently for children and adults. Find out more about your child's BMI and what the numbers mean.)  Baldan-Carpenter vowed to get her daughter the help she needed. "It was painful realizing how bad things had gotten," she says. "I knew I had to do all I could to help her get to a healthy weight."

The scary stats on childhood obesity

Across the country, American children are getting fatter. In 1976, only six percent of children were considered overweight. By 2006, that figure had jumped to 17 percent. Today, one out of every three children in the United States is considered overweight or obese.

During the past three decades, obesity-related health complaints such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes — conditions once considered the exclusive domain of adults — have also increased at alarming rates among children. A recent study reveals that type 2 diabetes in particular is soaring among teenagers. Researchers analyzed data on  teens ages 12 to 19 and found that, among the teenagers surveyed, the number with diabetes or prediabetes increased from 9 percent in 1999 to 23 percent in 2008. The chronic condition can lead to serious medical conditions, including heart disease, stroke, blindness, and nerve damage.

Studies show that most overweight children remain overweight as adults. Still worse, if a child is overweight before age eight, she's more likely to be obese in adulthood. Some obesity experts say this may be the first generation of kids with a shorter life expectancy than their parents because of obesity-related diseases. Income and ethnicity play a role: one out of seven low-income preschoolers are obese. In children ages two to 19, Hispanic boys and African-American girls are significantly more likely to be obese than white children. (Find out more about the link between poverty and obesity.)

The real cause of childhood obesity

What's causing the obesity epidemic? On one level, the answer seems obvious, since for most people, excess weight results from eating too much and exercising too little. But in fact, obesity is a complicated problem with a number of possible causes — some of which we don't fully understand.

In the past, weight control was considered a matter of limiting calories, but now many nutrition experts believe that overconsumption of sugars and refined grains is more to blame than too many calories.

Additional challenges to maintaining a child's healthy weight are many and complex. High on the list is school cafeteria food, which all too often is short on nutrition and tall on sugar and empty carbohydrates. Little or no physical education or recess at school plays a part as well, as does the dearth of safe places to play near many children's homes. Add to this damming list an increased access to sedentary screen pursuits; a relentless barrage of advertising and marketing from food companies pushing products high in fat, sugar, and salt; and a culture that frequently rewards children with pizza parties, sweet treats, and outings to fast food joints. What's more, some unlucky children carry genes for fatness — genes that make them more predisposed to obesity, according to nutritionist Ellyn Satter.

Sarah Henry is a Bay Area-based freelance food writer and the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale.