It’s no secret that Mississippi is one of the most obese states (number one in some surveys) in the nation and has all the illnesses associated with obesity. With that backdrop, it’s no surprise that childhood obesity is increasing, too.
“There has been a definite increase in outpatient referrals from area pediatricians requesting weight loss diets for children and adolescents,” says Megan Bartee, registered dietitian with the Singing River Hospital System in Pascagoula. “Today’s youth are considered to be the most inactive generation in history. They spend more time indoors playing video games and watching t.v. Also, they have a much greater intake of fast food and convenience food meals than young people in the past.”
Eating and activity
Dr. Jimmy Stewart of the University Medical Center in Jackson did a combined residency in internal medicine and pediatrics and has a clinical interest in hypertension. He sees a lot of hypertension among adults and children in Mississippi with 90% due to obesity.
“I see the full gamut of it down to five-year-old patients with hypertension,” he said. “Research shows there are two big factors that cause obesity — what we eat and the lack of exercise.”
Food portion sizes have increased and the composition of food has changed in recent years. A UMC study of 200 fifth-grade students in two rural Mississippi counties revealed that the majority ate less than one vegetable and one fruit per day.
“There are a lot of pressures for families to turn to fast food because everyone is busy,” Stewart said. “There’s also been a cultural change in society. Even 15 years ago there was a huge difference. Children aren’t as active and there’s not as much play.”
With schools not requiring physical education, the American Academy of Pediatrics put out guidelines suggesting one hour of play per day for children. Stewart emphasizes that recreational play, not organized sports, is best.
“The biggest culprit is television,” he said. “You can chart out how much children watch by their obesity. I ask patients what they do after school, and they always say watch television, play video games and get on the computer.”
In his recent Healthy Mississippi Summit, Gov. Haley Barbour said the focus includes the challenges and opportunities to promote better ways to have healthier kids.
“I support a revised curriculum that requires more physical activity for students in schools and healthier sources for food and drink,” he said. “I support the recently-announced move by State Superintendent Hank Bounds and the Board of Education to allow only healthy products in school vending machines. We also must work to be sure school cafeterias serve healthier meals and prepare them appropriately.”
Dr. Stewart agrees that schools and communities must be involved in this health issue and supports putting healthier choices in school vending machines. The primary responsibility, however, rests with families.
“Telling Mississippians to change the way they eat is almost an insult because things like sweet tea and calorie-laden foods are so ingrained in our culture. It has to be a family decision. Families must be involved,” he said. “Studies show that families that sit down and eat together will eat healthier. Children who see their parents eating unhealthy will do the same.”
There’s also the problem of older children and teens having no adult supervision after school. These kids have control of the kitchen.
Furthermore, Stewart says state residents have become blind to obesity because the majority of residents are overweight. With two-thirds of the population overweight or obese, residents don’t see the problem. In this scenario, vanity is not such a big issue anymore and being overweight doesn’t carry the social stigma it once did.
“Many people just don’t see it. They’ll say their child is big boned,” he said. “Our obesity is very noticeable if you travel outside the state and see the contrast.”
He also says the state’s sports mania feeds childhood obesity because parents and coaches want bigger kids on their teams. “Football coaches sometimes tell players to eat everything they normally eat and add a Big Mac to it,” he said.
Stewart says families with lower socio-economic status have more risk of having obese children although he’s seeing rising numbers in upper income brackets too.
African-American adolescent females as a group have the fastest-growing rate of obesity.
“Obese children have more illness. There are about 40 illnesses, including asthma and joint problems, attributed to obesity,” Stewart said. “It will impact us in the future. Ninety percent of patients with diabetes can attribute it to obesity, and that’s a major drain on the healthcare system. If things do not change, there won’t be any way we can support this in 20 years.”
Bartee is also concerned about the many adverse health effects associated with childhood obesity. She sees it as a major problem as these children become adults.
“The financial costs to the U.S. healthcare system caused by overweight and obesity are quite substantial,” she said. “This is due to the increased need for medical care and hospitalizations associated with the adverse health effects caused by obesity.”
Stewart says he’s had to resort to telling children about the most negative effects of obesity to motivate them. Although it’s not being done in Jackson, gastric bypass surgery is being performed on obese children in some places.
“That’s for severely obese children. It has side effects and it’s costly, but justified if it saves problems and healthcare costs later in life,” he said.
Losing weight is a difficult thing to do at any age and Stewart feels it’s harder for children. He looks for individual successes. “Everyone is looking for a magic pill and there is not one,” he said. “Lifestyle changes can be so much more powerful and have lifelong results.”
Both professionals agree with the governor that prevention should be the focus. That means eating better with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables and getting more exercise.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.