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Dissecting the Origins of Childhood Obesity

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Every morning, before George Datto III, M.D., puts on his white coat and heads to work at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children, he packs a lunch for his 10-year-old son Gregory.

“Usually, it’s a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, a cheese stick, an apple and a bottle of water,” he says. “He gets pretzels two days a week.”

Datto is chief of the Division of Weight Management, a program dedicated to helping obese children achieve a healthy weight and avoid high blood pressure, asthma, joint problems and other illnesses.

“We see 10-year-olds who are diabetic and hypertensive,” he says. “These problems are nonexistent in children who are not obese.”

Nemours, A.I.’s parent foundation, established the first pediatric weight management program in the nation in 1988. A.I. also is a training ground for doctors who treat children with serious weight issues.

Datto is an advocate for providing kids with the support they need to maintain a healthy weight. That starts in his own home, making certain his son gets a balanced, nutritious lunch. He also would like to see mandatory gym class in schools, five days a week for 45 minutes a day.

“Kids need to run around,” he says. “Phys ed makes that happen.”

In Delaware, 40 percent of children ages 2 to 17 are overweight or obese, according to the Delaware Survey of Children’s Health, sponsored by Nemours. In children and adolescents, obesity is defined as having a body mass index greater than the 95th percentile.

While obesity rates for African-American boys and white girls declined slightly from 2008-2011, rates for white boys are on the rise. Hispanic children of both genders are the most likely to be overweight, the survey found.

So what makes kids gain more weight than is good for them? In most cases, it boils down to math. Children consume more calories than they burn.

The remedy sounds simple: a healthy diet and regular exercise.

But weight gain is a complex issue. Researchers now believe that kids who don’t get enough sleep produce more of the hormone that fuels hunger, so they eat more than they should.

“Sleep is crucial to a healthy metabolism,” Datto says. “If your child is over the age of 6 and takes a nap during the day, he is not getting enough sleep. And if you are up late at night you probably are eating late at night.”

Learning more about nutrition is essential for both parents and kids. For instance, many moms and dads think of fruit juice as a positive choice. Truth to tell, most juice contains added fructose and other sugars, while lacking the beneficial fiber found in fresh fruit.

“Children should have no more than one cup of juice a day,” Datto says. “Water or milk is best—and after age 2, nonfat milk is best.”

Skipping breakfast also has been linked to weight gain. Datto suggests stocking grab-and-go breakfasts for days when families are on the run, such as power bars, no-fat yogurt and single-serving boxes
of Cheerios. 

It’s up to moms and dads to make certain there is healthy food in the house.

“Your job as a parent is not to provide what a child wants,” he says. “A parent’s job is to provide what a child needs.”

Getting Kids Off to a Nutritious Start

Many of the children Lou Marshall teaches haven’t learned to read yet. But they are old enough to understand that strawberries are as sweet as candy and are much better for you.

Marshall is founder of Yummilicious, an interactive enrichment program that takes nutrition directly to kids at preschools and early education centers.

Marshall, an artist from Kennett, came up with the concept when she was commissioned to paint murals in schools and child-care centers.

“The kids wanted me to eat lunch with them—and I thought that was a great idea, too,” she says. 

She discovered that kids are hungry for information. 

“Children want to learn about food,” Marshall says. “How could I paint a message that fruits and vegetables are good for you? How could I teach a class that gives kids the knowledge they need to make good choices?” 

Soon her imagination sprouted a cast of characters who take a fun and fanciful approach to eating green stuff. 

There’s Granny Smith, who reminds us that apples are delicious and full of fiber. Broccoli Rob says raw veggies make a crunchy snack. Jack O’Lantern reminds us that pumpkin seeds are edible, too.

“If you talk about carrots that have super powers that are good for your eyes, it’s a lot more fun than saying, ‘You can’t leave the table until you finish your carrots,’” Marshall says.

The goal is to establish healthy eating habits that children can carry with them throughout life.

“We start with the kids because often the parents don’t know about nutrition,” Marshall says.

Children also learn what a healthy plate should look like. Half the plate should be fruits and vegetables, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. The other half should be divided between proteins such as fish, skinless poultry or lean meats, and grains such as lentils, brown rice or barley.

“When kids go home, they can ask their parents to fix their plates like that,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to get the whole family eating healthier meals.”

From Fat to Fit

Andy Staton is buff and trim. He tests himself in Iron Man triathlons and other endurance events. Last year, he completed the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, a grueling, 41.8-mile race in which runners cross the Grand Canyon twice.

At 41, he is a successful real estate agent in Rehoboth Beach and vice chair of the Delaware Real Estate Commission.

Yet every time he looks in the mirror, Staton sees the fat miserable kid he once was.

“No one enjoys being overweight,” he says. “As a fat person, people judge you wherever you go.”

Staton hopes to inspire youngsters who are overweight to embrace healthy eating and exercise. 

“Starting young means kids can avoid a lot of social misery, as well as health problems,” he says.

He established the Andy Staton Foundation, which has donated more than $50,000 to programs that promote nutrition and fitness for kids, including Girls on the Run and the Sussex County Health Promotion Coalition.

“It is my personal mission,” he says. 

As a kid, Staton ate a steady diet of pizza, cheeseburgers, cookies and cola.

“My parents were not overweight and didn’t understand the implications of having bad food in the house,” he says.

By the time he was in high school, he weighed 285 pounds. His mom tried to help by taking him to a doctor, who prescribed diet pills. 

“I tried it for a month and it didn’t work, so I quit,” he recalls.

He was 15 when he looked out his bedroom window and saw three burning letters on the front lawn: F-A-T.

“Fat kids are bullied every single day,” he says. “I was that fat kid.”

After college, Staton continued to put on pounds. He was 5-feet, 9 inches tall and weighed 320 pounds. His waistline measured 54 inches.

He tried various diets and weight-loss programs. He would lose a few pounds, then gain them back.

Staton was 30 when he hired a personal trainer who stressed both nutrition and exercise. That proved to be a winning combination.

He occasionally indulges in a cheeseburger, but he has learned to burn those excess calories by putting in more time at the gym.

“My message to parents and kids is that you just can’t change what you eat,” he says. “You have to work out, too.”

He still enjoys pancakes, but instead of flour pancakes topped with butter and sugary syrup, he starts the day with pancakes made with fat-free cottage cheese, egg whites and a packet of sugar-free, maple-flavored oatmeal. 

“It’s quick, easy and tastes great,” he says. 

Today Staton weighs 170 pounds. He has a 32-inch waistline. He is energetic, working hard, playing hard and devoting time to community service.

“I can truthfully tell every fat kid that you can change your lifestyle,” he says. “If I can do it, so can you.”  

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