Supersized kids

Ohio’s childhood obesity problem is worse than we thought

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik

When an individual is diagnosed with cancer, the response to heal is almost always instantaneous. Family members reach out to help. Doctors suggest treatment plans and offer advice for attacking the disease. And the Internet, schools of research and a multitude of books offer their advice to help those stricken with cancer find a life that is healthy once again.

The same approaches — varying, of course, in seriousness and intensity — lie in place for diseases and illnesses ranging from multiple sclerosis to heart disease to the common cold.
But when it comes to the subject of obesity, the offerings of help and advice seem to be masked by a recognition that the subject matter is a sensitive, albeit extremely serious, one. And when the individual at risk is a child, the approach is made even more difficult by the impressionable nature of young age.

“I think people are afraid to approach the subject because it is very personal, and very emotional,” said Amy Jamieson-Petonic, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). “For example, many parents of overweight children are overweight themselves, and this makes them acknowledge their own weight concerns. Parents may also have a number of long standing issues that they need to deal with themselves to become healthier for their kids.”

“Pediatricians may not want to address weight because it can make the child feel ‘bad’ initially, but focusing on the health issues are the best route to go.

And the “health issues” behind obesity are glaring. In Ohio alone, obesity rates have tripled nationally since 1980 and are currently sitting at around 17 percent for children and adolescents, according to Amy Stanford, a nurse practitioner at Akron Children’s Future Fitness Clinic.

“In Ohio in 2003, obesity accounted for 10 percent to 15 percent of children and adolescents and is now up closer to 30 percent,” Stanford said.

Amy Chand, a youth fitness specialist (also at Akron Children’s Future Fitness Clinic), agreed with Stanford, adding: “Taken from the Ohio Department of Health in September 2010, more than one third of Ohio’s children ages two years and older are either overweight or obese, and almost one in five 10- to 17-year-olds are obese. Ohio has the 12th highest rate of childhood obesity.”

But what’s happening in Ohio is evident across the nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The percentage of children aged 6 to 11 years in the U.S. who were obese increased from seven percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12 to 19 years who were obese increased from five percent to 18 percent over the same period. In 2008, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

“It is a much bigger issue today than 10 years ago,” said Jamieson-Petonic. “Children are less physically active and have access to large portions of high calorie, high fat, sugar and sodium foods today.”

Jamieson-Petonic added: “It appears that our lives are so much busier today than in the past — this is by no means the only reason, but the decline of family meals may have been a factor.”

From a nationwide perspective, the cause of childhood obesity is evident. Environmental, ethnicity and socioeconomic factors aside, the CDC lists increased consumption of less healthy food and physical inactivity as large contributing factors behind the spike in childhood obesity rates. According to the CDC, a few determinants that are influencing children’s health include:


  • Lack of daily, quality physical activity in all schools. In 2009, only 33 percent of adolescents attended daily physical education classes.


  • Advertising of less healthy foods. Nearly half of U.S. middle and high schools allow advertising of less healthy foods, which impacts students’ ability to make healthy food choices.


  • Limited access to healthy, affordable foods. Some people have less access to stores and supermarkets that sell healthy, affordable food such as fruits and vegetables, especially in rural, minority and lower-income neighborhoods.


  • Television and media. Children 8 to 18 years of age spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media, including TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies. This, naturally, contributes to a lack of physical activity, and an increase in snacking and eating meals in front of the television.

And those nationwide contributing factors are no different in the state of Ohio, said Dr. James Ebert, head of the lipid clinic at the Children’s Medical Center of Dayton.
“Ohio’s obesity problem equals or exceeds the problem nationwide,” Ebert said. “Medical problems that were once rare among children, such as high blood pressure and type II diabetes, are becoming increasingly common.”

Ebert — noting that there is no single cause to the obesity epidemic — said significant contributing factors include: Drinking sugared beverages instead of water when thirsty; the replacement of active play with electronic play; and the gradual replacement of planned formal mealtimes with convenience foods, fast foods, and constant snacking.

But the push to change the epidemic, nationwide and statewide, is stronger and more present than ever.

In February 2010, first lady Michelle Obama announced the launch of “Let’s Move,” ( a nationwide campaign built to improve the quality of food in schools, make healthy foods more accessible for families and direct a focus on the increase of physical education. In conjunction with the initiation of the campaign, President Barack Obama signed a presidential memorandum that was built with the intention of tackling childhood obesity, a matter he called at the time the “most urgent” health issue facing the country. The memorandum set forth a 90-day plan that included a task force that would provide “optimal coordination” between private sector companies, not-for-profits, agencies within the government and other organizations to address the problem of childhood obesity.

“I have set a goal to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight,” the president wrote in his memorandum. “The first lady will lead a national public awareness effort to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity. She will encourage involvement by actors from every sector — the public, nonprofits, and private sectors, as well as parents and youth — to help support and amplify the work of the federal government in improving the health of our children.”

One year later, the task force submitted a report that outlined the successes of their efforts, including the institution of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in December 2010. The act was put in place in an effort to increase children’s access to  healthy school meals. According to the report, highlights of the act include:

  • Additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for school meals.


  • Increasing the number of eligible children enrolled in school meal programs by directly certifying children using data from other federal assistance programs; giving USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, the “a la carte” lunch lines, and school stores.


  • Making other important improvements in nutrition programs that serve young children, including the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

In Ohio, the efforts are no less than those that are being put in place across the nation. Ohio currently receives one grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities Fund to battle overweight and obesity in children, and Action for Healthy Kids has an Ohio coalition geared towards advocating for the prevention of childhood obesity and the spread of innovations that promote healthy communities.

In addition to such programs, Ohio Children’s Hospitals Association sponsored a statewide program to make resources for combating obesity available to federally qualified health centers.

Ebert said the implementation of state regulations that encourage schools to measure weight and height on all students in order to calculate body mass index (BMI) and share this information with parents will also “begin to increase awareness and facilitate changes in dietary and activity choices.”

Within his personal practice, Ebert is continuing to train residents and students who have an interest in the childhood obesity problem, and using “every opportunity to encourage people of all ages to make important lifestyle changes, including: Replacing junk foods with five servings of fruits and vegetables daily; replacing electronic recreation with physical activity and outdoor recreation; and rediscovering water as a beverage.

Jamieson-Petonic said she too — in conjunction with the Cleveland Clinic — is working to help spread her knowledge about the prevention of childhood obesity, including offering school districts the tools to offer healthier foods to students.

“We partner with local elementary schools to teach kids about good foods, and to help their parents learn how to recognize them and buy them [at] home,” Jamieson-Petonic said.
And for those who think the statistics are daunting, they can find reassurance in the idea that health, school and government professionals are now more than ever ready to push for good health. Some of them even offer their own stories of weight struggles as inspiration:

“I was a very overweight kid, and struggled with many issues at home, which was one reason why I made unhealthy food choices,” Jamieson-Petonic said. “Once I started eating to fuel my body, I did much better, and was able to lose the weight as a young adult.”

Proof in its purest form that a healthy life for even the youngest members of the obesity epidemic is in fact something worth fighting for.

Caroline Shannon-Karasik is the author of the healthy living blog, Reach DCP freelance writer Caroline Shannon-Karasik at

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