In the past 30 years, child obesity has approximately tripled. Health experts estimate that there are over 23 million overweight or obese kids between 2 and 19 in the United States—fully one third of America’s children. That’s why First Lady Michelle Obama’s focus on the issue was a major part of her introduction last night at the Democratic National Convention.
These children, moreover, are at risk for serious health problems. Obese children are as vulnerable as obese adults to conditions we usually don’t expect children to get, such as prediabetic conditions and type 2 diabetes, heat disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Obese children are as prone as obese adults to sleep apnea and bone and joint problems. Later in life, obese children often grow into obese adults, which means lifelong health problems including several types of cancer.
Recently, in fact, scientists discovered a further health risk. Overweight and obese children—especially children with metabolic syndrome, the occurrence of obesity with the prediabetic condition called insulin resistance—have shown cognitive deficits. These children had trouble reading, did poorly on math tests, and were slower to complete tasks than other children, and MRI scans showed physical differences in their brains. Researchers say these changes may be irreversible, though they can be stopped.
How have our kids gotten this way? According to a study published in Australia this week, spending time in front of screens—TV, computer—is the biggest single indicator of whether a child will be overweight. The study found this connection to hold even when taking into account the amount of exercise children got. Though exercise was found to be important, time in front of screens was even more important.
That means that it may be useful to incorporate these findings into your strategies for keeping your kids healthy. It takes feeding them right, getting them moving, and keeping them away from the couch and computer desk. TV dinners and takeout, and unhealthy snacks, are part of the problem, though banning foods entirely can backfire. Get your kids up, out of the house, and moving around, in the yard or at the park if they won’t or can’t do organized sports. More than that, get them away from the computer, reading or having family time; a little online socializing is okay but don’t let it take over.