A changing society with lifestyles that include less physical activity, more time in front of electronic devices and a culture craving fast food are some of the variables that have led to a near-epidemic level of childhood obesity in the United States, studies show.
Physicians are the first to record the growing problem - literally - as they chart a child's growth and physical development from birth on. And while some children may have health disorders that contribute to weight problems, the majority of overweight children are the products of their environment.
Angie Haberfield, a dietician at the Howard Long Wellness Center in Wheeling, works with families to bring about a healthy lifestyle that, in turn, leads to a healthy weight for the whole family.
Angie Haberfield, a dietician at the Howard Long Wellness Center in Wheeling, works with families seeking healthier lifestyles to fight childhood obesity.
Photo by Heather Ziegler
The new direction to stop obesity before it begins starts with parents, experts say, as healthy choices made at home will set an example for a lifetime.
"It has to start with the parents. They are the ones who have to serve as role models for their children and that means having nutritious foods available and encouraging their children's physical fitness," Haberfield said.
Haberfield promotes the LEAN program which stands for Lifestyle, Exercise and Nutrition. Overweight children are referred to the program at the Howard Long Wellness Center by their physicians.
Most health insurance providers do not cover these programs but financial scholarships are available to families who qualify for the reduced and free lunch programs in their schools.
She said most health insurance plans do not pay for nutrition plans or consultations until after someone has developed type 2 diabetes or heart problems.
Haberfield believes a healthy "family lifestyle" means taking a walk in the park together, biking or hiking a trail, or simply playing outdoors. It also requires meal planning that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy products and fewer processed foods.
"Physical education classes are not emphasized like they used to be in school. Today, schools are more interested in making the grades for the tests that determine school funding. So it's important that kids be active after school whether it's through sports or family activities," Haberfield said.
That's not to say that schools have not changed the way they approach a healthy learning environment. School lunches are getting away from pre-packaged, processed foods to more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and other healthy choices. Recess, which always was a chance for youngsters to burn off some afternoon energy, appears to be less a priority for schools, though, with many elementary schools allotting a maximum 15 minutes for exercise.
However, Haberfield said if children are not used to eating healthy foods at home, they are less likely to eat them at school. School trash cans will affirm that fact.
The Healthy Hunger Free Act of 2010 changed the nutrition requirements for school lunches and outlines activity wellness plans schools should be following.
Prior to starting a family on a LEAN program, Haberfield gives the parents a quiz that helps everyone understand what is contributing to their child's weight problem. Parents are asked what foods are regularly served in the home, how often fast foods are consumed, what physical activities are planned and more.
"We then can teach the parents and kids not only what types of food to eat, but also the proper portions. We ask how often kids are eating, whether they are eating too much fast food and even if they are eating together or just driving through the fast food lanes," Haberfield noted.
Parents, grandparents and caregivers are reminded not to use food as a reward or punishment. They should set limits on sugary or fat-laden foods.
Children, like adults, will seek out "comfort foods," but limiting the accessibility of empty calorie foods in lieu of more nutritional items can change a child's eating habits for the better.
Obese children as young as 9 and 10 are showing early signs of cardiac problems, arthritis, bone deformity and high cholesterol. Many are already diabetic.
Some programs are proving to have a positive effect, especially in the Mountain State. While they are baby steps, they are making headway, health officials noted.
According to West Virginia University's CARDIAC program, 27.8 percent of the fifth-graders in the 2011-12 school year screened by the university program were obese as compared to 28.9 percent of those screened in the 2010-11 school year. High blood pressure levels in the same study group fell from 24 percent to 20.3 percent, as did cholesterol levels from 26.1 percent of 23.5 percent.
Rick Goff, director of the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition, attributes the health improvements to a recent increase in physical activity in the schools and fewer processed foods being served in school cafeterias. School cooks in 26 counties in West Virginia have been provided training on how to cook "from scratch" rather than using packaged foods.