Childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past 30 years, according to a presentation Wednesday.
Elaine Taylor, a pediatric nurse practitioner and associate professor of nursing at North Georgia College & State University, said studies show that about 6.5 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were considered obese in 1980. In 2008, that percentage had increased to nearly 20 percent.
Taylor’s presentation was the final installment of the North Georgia Community Connections lecture series, which has been held over the past few weeks at Hampton Park library.
Taylor went on to say that some 80 percent of children who are overweight or obese go on to become overweight adults.
She said the problem has lead to many children developing health issues that historically have been found only in older adults.
Taylor said overweight children are at much higher risks of developing problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, muscle and skeletal disorders, and Type II diabetes.
“Research says that this may be the first generation of children who have a shorter life span than their parents,” said Taylor, noting that childhood obesity has led an estimated $127 million per year in health care costs in the U.S.
She said that childhood obesity is “a complex issue” with many contributing factors, including genetics, a lack of health care intervention, cultural changes and sometimes not enough parenting.
Parents often can’t afford to take their children to the doctor for “well child checkups,” particularly in recent years due to the down economy.
“That’s really unfortunate because these checkups provide a great opportunity to find out what’s going on with the family, and talk to them about nutrition and being active,” Taylor said.
For example, she said she once asked one of her young patients what he typically ate for breakfast.
“I thought he said ‘cheese toast,’ but he actually said ‘Cheetos,’” she said, noting that she went on to explain how that wasn’t a healthy breakfast food.
Taylor said the increase in “screen time” — the time children spend in front of electronic devices such as TVs, cell phones, computers and video games — has also contributed to the health issue.
She recommended that children get a total of less than two hours per day of screen time, and spend at least one hour every day in physical activity such as outside play.
Cultural changes such as both parents working outside the home have also played a role in the ever-increasing problem.
“In our fast-paced lives, it’s often hard to get home-cooked, balanced meals on the table,” she said.
But parents are key to helping their children develop healthier habits, she added.
“If you want your kids to eat a balanced diet, you have to provide them with healthy food options,” she said.
She related a story about another patient, a young boy whose mother said would “only eat fast food three times a day.”
“I finally just got to the point where I asked her if he had a driver’s license, if he was driving himself to those restaurants,” she said. “Of course, he wasn’t. The parent just needed to take control.”
Taylor said that while childhood obesity may seem to be an overwhelming problem, she has been pleased with recent health programs such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.
The first lady’s program encourages good nutrition and physical activity.
Taylor said the Web site, www.letsmove.gov, provides many resources for health care professionals and families.
Sharon Howell, a school nurse at South Forsyth Middle School, said she learned a lot from Taylor’s presentation.
“She offered a lot of resources I can use,” she said, noting that her school already takes several steps to provide better nutrition to students, such as not frying foods and not putting sodas in vending machines.
Howell asked Taylor what she believed to be the best way to spread the word about the problem and possible solutions.
“It has to be a multi-pronged approach,” Taylor said. “You have to involve parents, health care providers, schools and your communities at-large.”