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Childhood Obesity: A Growing Problem

Childhood obesity is an epidemic…but some Long Island schools are fighting it

Part 28 of our award-winning series “Our Children’s Health

By Elizabeth Siris Winchester


Adrianne Goldenbaum, lunch director of the West Babylon School District for the past 30 years, witnesses the poor eating habits of many Long Island children in school cafeterias daily. She fears she may even have unintentionally contributed to them.

“When I first started in food service everything was made from scratch—Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, even the rolls,” Goldenbaum explains. “Then, all of a sudden, it became fast food and everything was fried and the caloric intake of meals was much higher.”

Goldenbaum observes, too, that as kids consume more calories, they appear to exercise less. “A lot of the kids these days don’t go out and move. They are consuming these huge amounts of calories and not burning them off,” she says. “Life is just different than when I was growing up and we were out all day playing until dinner time.”

A high caloric diet paired with a sedentary lifestyle is a recipe for excessive weight gain, and a major reason for the current childhood obesity epidemic in the United States. Genetics also comes into play. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry states that children with one obese parent have a 50 percent chance of becoming obese; if both parents are obese, the risk jumps to 80 percent. Certain medications, stress and illness may also be to blame.

No matter what causes childhood obesity, Goldenbaum is correct in observing it rise throughout her career. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since 1980 the number of American children who are obese more than doubled for ages 2 to 5, almost tripled for ages 6 to 11, and more than tripled for ages 12 to 19. Today, about one out of three children and teenagers in the U.S. is overweight or obese.

Measuring Obesity And Its Costs

Obesity is defined as an excess  percentage of body fat. In adults and children over the age of 2, obesity is measured by the body mass index (BMI). The BMI is calculated using a person’s weight in relation to his or her height. For children and adolescents, BMI measurements are plotted on charts for age and gender, for percentile rankings. Those with a BMI more than the 85th percentile but less than the 95th percentile are considered overweight; those above the 95th percentile are considered obese. (Calculate your child’s BMI.)

Pediatricians assess a child’s BMI on every well visit after the age of 2. Dr. John Sheehy, who has been in pediatric practice in Glen Cove since 1978, notes exceptions to BMI classifications. “If kids are very athletic they are going to have increased bone density and muscle mass, and in those kids the BMI might be higher,” says Sheehy. “I say, ‘Don’t look at your weight; look at your conditioning. Look at how your pants fit.’”

Exceptions aside, why do the skyrocketing childhood obesity rates have experts very concerned?

“Doctors have been finding cases of what used to be ‘adult’ diseases [such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and conditions including high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol] in overweight teenagers and children as young as age 6,” explains Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, a pediatrician who began specializing in treating childhood obesity in February of 2008, when she started Roslyn-based Dr. Dolgoff’s Weigh: Child and Adolescent Weight Management Program. “New research indicates that childhood obesity itself may shorten one’s life span, even if that person is not obese as an adult.”

While many obesity-related complications may only be apparent to experts, parents may be able to observe some associated problems at home. These conditions include asthma and other breathing problems, troubled sleep, joint pain, depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that overweight and obese children are more likely to be victims of bullying and peer discrimination.

As if a rise in obesity-related illnesses in young people today is not damaging enough to society and future generations, the cost of treating them is. The CDC reports that from 1997 to 1999, hospital costs each year related to treating obesity in children and adolescents were $127 million, while from 1979 to 1981 they were $35 million.

“The average U.S. taxpayer pays $175 per year to finance obesity,” said Eric Finkelstein, Ph.D., at the National Conference on Childhood Obesity in June. “Obesity increases the nation’s health care bill by more than $90 billion per year.”

Fighting The Fat

Obesity has emerged as a leading health hazard in the U.S., and government and school officials, doctors, parents and other community members are working to reduce the growing problem. In New York State, where almost 60 percent of adult residents are overweight or obese (in Nassau County, it’s 52 percent, and Suffolk, 57 percent), U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has made fighting childhood obesity a top priority.

“The most effective way to address obesity is to provide healthier food and exercise opportunities for our children,” the senator said. “We need to be taking real steps to give parents, schools and communities the resources they need to give our children access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

This past July, Gillibrand introduced legislation that would prohibit public school cafeterias from serving trans fats, and help educate parents about the dangers of overloading on foods that are high in fat from hydrogenated oils. New York City public schools have been successful in their quest to do so ever since the city’s trans fat ban in restaurants began in July 2007. Gillibrand also plans to work to get schools to cut back on the amount of junk food they serve.

But meals that include fresh fruits and vegetables and top-quality meats come at a higher price than the ones that many school districts are currently serving. The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which is scheduled to expire on Sept. 30 (at press time, it was anticipated that Congress would extend this deadline until later this fall), determines how much money the federal government provides to schools for reimbursable meal programs. One such initiative is the National School Lunch Program, which gives low-cost or free lunches to students who qualify for them. Gillibrand would like to increase the reimbursements for the lunches by 70 cents per meal, in hopes that by doing so, schools will be able to improve the meals’ nutritional value.

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