FORT WAYNE – Reasons for the increased rate of obesity in America's youth, including Indiana teenagers, have formed “the perfect storm,” according to Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan.
Statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that nearly one-third of Indiana's children ages 10 to 17 are overweight.
The CDC figures show that 29.9 percent of Hoosier adolescents are considered overweight or obese, slightly below the national average of 31.6.
“Overweight” is defined as having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water, or a combination of those factors. “Obese” is defined as having excess body fat.
“From my perspective, it's kind of like the perfect storm,” McMahan said. “You have an industry that just comes up with new ways to put more cheese in pizza, so you have more opportunities for good, tasty food that children find very appealing. You have the other component where kids are less active because you have more video games, more iPads, more technology that prevents children from moving. And all of that coming together is really the perfect storm for kids to be less active and eat more.
“Couple that with the fact that kids feel more stress. Probably at any given time, a third of your teen population is feeling really stressed, and one of the ways that people learn early on to deal with stress is by eating comfort foods and other things that increase your serotonin levels. You have all of that together and you're just creating the perfect opportunity for kids to struggle with weight issues.”
The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that approximately 13 million children in the United States are obese. The report also stated that during the past 40 years, obesity rates for children ages 6 to 11 nearly tripled, from 5 percent to 14 percent, and more than tripled for children ages 12 to 19, from 5 percent to 17.1 percent.
Obese adolescents, according to JAMA, have an 80 percent chance of being obese adults.
“Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents,” said former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who was quoted by the American Heart Association.
The JAMA report said that childhood obesity expenses are estimated at $14 billion annually.
A CDC report cited that schools “play a critical role in improving the dietary and physical activity behaviors of children and adolescents.”
Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman Krista Stockman said the corporation is addressing the issue through its lunch program.
“The biggest thing is the change in the recipes that we use for our lunches,” she said. “For instance, we use a lot more whole-grain breads. We don't have dessert every day – I'm talking primarily for the middle schools. Some of this would also be true for middle school and high school, but for high school, the students have that option of getting a la carte items, so sometimes our efforts don't necessarily reach high school students as much.”
But a new trend may be forthcoming. In 18 states, the childhood obesity rates have decreased.
In Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota, the obesity numbers dropped at least 1 percentage point. Other states that showed improvement were California, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Washington.
“Now, for the first time, we're seeing a significant decrease in childhood obesity,” CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden told the Associated Press last summer. But he added, “It's not like we're out of the woods.”
Brent Wake, director of Healthy Living Initiatives for the state YMCA alliance, said the obesity issue among teens has reached the point where it cannot be ignored.
“What I've been finding right now is there is a recognition of the problem,” Wake said. “I think many communities recognize that. You can tell simply by anecdotal evidence, even if we don't have the concrete data, that we've got a challenge when it comes to obesity and overweight rates of our youth. Communities are keenly aware of that.”
Hoping to stem the obesity tide, YMCA Community Wellness Director Wendy Spitznagel said free one-year memberships are offered for seventh-grade students in Allen, Wells and Whitley counties with the Seventh Grade Initiative program.
“One of the reasons why seventh grade was identified was because that's a crucial age,” Spitznagel said. “A lot of schools don't have intramural-type programs, so it's kind of a make-or-break age of where you're being active or you're not. The end of everybody makes fifth-grade, sixth-grade basketball or football is over, and now teams are actually becoming competitive. If somebody's not competitive in some type of after school sport or club sport, then those seventh-graders get left behind.
Last year, Spitznagel said approximately 300 seventh-grade students took advantage of the program.
McMahan said the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health will also be addressing teenage obesity.
“One of the things that we're going to be starting in the fall – we'll be working on it this summer – we'll be beginning our Community Health Improvement Plan for Children,” McMahan said. “One of the six domains we'll be covering will be medical health, and probably obesity will be one of those issues.”
While it's one thing, she says, to educate children and parents in healthy eating, it's another to implement lifestyle changes.
“I think we have to create more opportunities for kids to have more activity,” McMahan said. “We're really robbing kids of those because we think we need to give them more education time, more this, more than, when in fact we know that exercising during the school day actually help kids think better, let alone get them more activity and to move and burn calories. That's part of it.
“ … It really does start early on. I think we need to really help kids appreciate a more diverse sort of eating pattern and exposure to foods than maybe what we're doing now.
“You look at kids' menus, and a lot of them are focused on the chicken nuggets, the mac and cheese and the hot dog. You really have to force kids to have more of an opportunity to explore other things that aren't quite as tasty and satisfying but more nutritious.”