Childhood obesity prevention


    We started this series of bilingual articles in our previous issue, to provide communities, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, the best way to understand and to be part of the solution, as presented by Massachusetts Public Health Association with offices in the Merrimack Valley area, of this epidemic known as The Obesity in America.

    I can tell you that a recent report published by the American Dietetic Association (ADA), emphasizes the importance of a healthy balanced diet for children, as well as their participation in regular physical activity, to promote optimal physical and cognitive development, attain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Yet, studies have shown that U.S. children and adolescents consume only two and a half servings of fruits and vegetables daily, far short of the recommended daily consumption of five fruits and vegetables. And because restaurants are offering larger and larger portion sizes, and people are eating out more often, they are getting bigger portions of unhealthy foods.

   In Massachusetts, only 14% of adolescents met the dietary guidelines for fruits and vegetables, down from the 21% in 1999. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of statewide surveillance systems tracking trends in the nutrition, growth and physical activity status of children, especially in the elementary years. Without this information, it is difficult to know how and where to target our efforts at preventing obesity in children.

   Another disturbing trend is that U.S. adolescents are consuming more drinks that are high in sugar and low in nutritional value, called “liquid candy” by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. A study published in the journal Lancet, conducted by Children’s Hospital-Boston and Harvard School of Public Health found that increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages promotes childhood obesity. Soft drink companies market aggressively to children, and are now targeting schools, offering financial incentives for exclusive pouring rights.

    Soda and juice drinks that contain 90% sugar, are quickly replacing milk and other calcium-rich beverages. Calcium is essential to bone growth and strength, and is especially needed during adolescence when most bone mass development occurs. Low calcium consumption increases the likelihood of developing osteoporosis, bone fractures and dental caries.

    Girls and certain minority populations appear to be particularly vulnerable. By a biological mechanism still under investigation, the consumption of carbonated beverages by teenage girls seems to increase their risk of bone fractures threefold over teenage girls who don’t consume them. Asian, African-American and Hispanic youth are also at risk of osteoporosis because of higher rates of lactose intolerance. This means, efforts must also focus on making non-dairy, calcium-fortified, healthful drinks available to those children who are lactose-intolerant.

   In relation to those physically inactive persons, the Surgeon General recommends in his report that people of all ages should participate in moderate daily physical activity. The benefits of physical activity can include an increased muscle and bone strength, a decrease of body fat, improved weight control, an enhanced psychological well-being and reduction in the symptoms of depression and anxiety, improving the person’s intellectual performance.

    Doctor John J. Ratey, clinical associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, stresses the importance of activity to brain development and function. According to him: “It’s helpful to think of the brain as a muscle. One of the best ways to maximize the brain is through exercise and movements”.

    The Surgeon General’s report showed that nearly 50% of American youths aged 12 to 21 years are not vigorously active on a regular basis. Participation in all types of physical activity declines remarkably as age or grade in school increases. Most states’ public schools don’t fulfill the widely dispersed physical education recommendations, requiring daily physical education for all students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

    We will continue, in our next issue of Rumbo, this important subject related to childhood obesity prevention. Don’t miss it!

   Guilmo Barrio

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