Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 1, 2012

Obese children

Efforts to reduce the number of fat kids must begin at home

The Independent

ASHLAND — Almost a decade after former Gov. Ernie Fletcher called childhood obesity an “epidemic” in Kentucky, a majority of Kentucky adults still think that there are too many overweight children in the state and they place the bulk of the blame squarely on the shoulders of their parents.

In the latest poll of adults conducted for the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, 52 percent of the respondents — or just over half — said they thought childhood obesity was a serious problem in the state. Another 32 percent viewed childhood obesity as a problem, but not a serious one.

Overwhelmingly, Kentuckians look to parents to address the problem.  Among those who viewed childhood obesity as a problem, 98 percent said parents are responsible for addressing the problem in Kentucky. But those polled don’t believe parents have to tackle this issue alone. 

The majority of respondents who viewed childhood obesity as a problem indicated that others also bear responsibility: specifically, schools (79 percent), doctors and other healthcare providers (75 percent), the food industry (72 percent), the children themselves (64 percent), and the government (54 percent) were all viewed as having responsibility for addressing childhood obesity.

“Kentuckians understand what’s needed to curb childhood obesity. As the first line of defense, Moms and Dads need to provide healthy foods and encourage children to be physically active,” noted Susan Zepeda, CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, “but parents can’t do it alone.  When more than a third of our children are overweight or obese, this is a problem that will take all of us to solve. Children need healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity while they are at school or day care, and they need safe spaces to play in our communities.”

A random sample of more than 1,600 Kentuckians completed the survey; 308 cell phone users are included in this number to ensure the results are representative of all Kentuckians.

It was Governor Fletcher — a physician by training — who first described childhood obesity as an epidemic in Kentucky, and during his four years as governor, the General Assembly approved legislation designed to have children eat healthier and exercise more at school. Limits were placed on the sale of soft drinks, candy bars and other sweets in school vending machines and on serving healthier meals in school cafeterias.

However, simply controlling what children eat at school will not solve the problem of having too many fat kids. Going all day without a soft drink or candy bar will be of limited value if the family goes to an all-you-can-eat pizza bar for dinner or if Mom serves spaghetti simply because it is one of the least costly meals she can prepare.

And it is not just what children eat that makes them obese. Sitting in front of the TV or at a computer or playing electronic games for hours at a time limits how much exercise children get, and playing outside with friends is still one of the best ways to keep the fat off.

Children are constantly exposed to TV commercials that promote unhealthy diets and too many parents in a rush to feed the kids pull into a fast food restaurant rather than take the time to plan and prepare a healthy, well-balanced meal.

A recent story in this newspaper raised the possibility of charging the parents of obese children with child abuse. While that seems extreme, the article emphasized children who were hundreds of pounds overweight — an 11-year-old weighing more than 400 pounds, for example — and not those who were just a little chubby. When a child’s immense weight is threatening his or her health and life, then a case can be made with charging those who feed that child with abuse. However, such charges should be extremely rare.

There is another reason why so many children are overweight in Kentucky. This state also has too many obese adults. Obesity may not be hereditary, but it definitely runs in families and it all comes back to what we eat.

Until more of us learn to eat smarter and exercise more, obesity will continue to be a problem in the state, and it is a problem that those of us who are carrying too many pounds ultimately must solve by making some serious lifestyle changes.