It was a sunny spring morning with a touch of crispness still in the air, a perfect day for a stroll through the zoo. But amid the crowds passing by I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A young mother, perhaps in her mid-20s and grossly overweight, was pulling a four-wheeled cart behind her. In the cart was an obese 6- or 7-year-old. But, worse still, the young boy, sitting cross-legged, was eating from a mound of pretzels and potato chips piled high in his lap.
My heart went out to both. What struggle had this woman already endured in her teen life and young motherhood? What battle yet lay ahead for her son who was heartily imitating her habits?
Must children follow a parent's pattern of obesity or ill health? No, it doesn't have to be that way. The cycle of poor health can be broken, but not without discipline in an affluent world beset with and seduced by distractions and fast foods.
I saw in this mother and child three pressing necessities: her need to change the way of life her child was emulating, his need for exercise, and their combined need for a change in diet.
Obesity, long a problem for the wealthy West, is also a growing problem in economically poor nations. A recent UN report noted that obesity is a symptom of economic progress. Now a problem of near-epidemic proportions, growing obesity has led World Health Organization (WHO) officials to develop plans "to head off a global explosion of fat-related diseases that a new generation of Latin Americans, Asians and even Africans could face" (National Post, Canada, May 18).
Contributing to the problem are a changing job market with an increase in two-income families and busy parents serving convenience foods, children taking buses to school rather than walking, and people not walking to water wells now that water is piped to their homes.
Egypt was cited as having the highest incidence of child obesity among poor nations, with more than 25 percent of its 4-year-olds overweight. The highest percentage in Latin America occurs in Mexico, with Peru and Chile close behind. The WHO findings identify urban areas as having more such problems than their rural counterparts.
This trend parallels that of the West. The affluent are the first to overindulge in unhealthy food, and children copy the habits of their parents.
A 14-year-old boy came into a doctor's office complaining of headaches, depression and periods of confusion. His mother wanted the doctor to give her son Prozac or some other antidepressant. Instead, the doctor gave her boy a blood test.
"His blood sugar was through the roof," said the doctor. "A few more lab tests and we confirmed that he had type-2 diabetes, the avoidable kind."
This incident, related by health writer Paul Perry, tells us that more and more children suffer from what used to be diseases largely confined to their parents (American Way, April 2001, p. 64). Mr. Perry says we should be particularly concerned about the following adult diseases that afflict children:
"Diabetes: As many as 45 percent of all new cases of diabetes in children are Type 2, commonly known as ‘adult onset diabetes.' Obesity and lack of exercise are the major factors for this disease, which can lead to heart disease, kidney failure and blindness.
"Osteoporosis: A dangerous thinning of the bones that usually takes place in women after menopause is now being found in adolescent girls. The culprit, according to one theory, is soft drinks. ‘Teens have doubled or tripled their consumption of soft drinks and have cut consumption of milk by more than 40 percent,' says Dr. Grace Wyshak of the Harvard School of Public Health.
"Stress and anxiety: More and more children every year are becoming victims of their fears of the world around them. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology said that the average American child in the 1980s reported more anxiety than did child psychiatric patients in the 1950's" (Perry, p. 64).
All this leads to the conclusion that children suffer because of the bad habits of their parents. Mr. Perry, who wrote a book, The Diabetes Cure, with Dr. Vern Cherewatenko, quotes his coauthor as saying: "The bottom line is that kids do what their parents do. And most parents aren't living right themselves" (ibid.).
Regular exercise is another casualty of modern life. "As of today, fewer than 10 percent of American adults do any regular exercise at all. Our children are being set up for a sickly adulthood. Despite Arnold Schwarzenegger's efforts with schools, the latest survey of grades 9-12 in all 50 states shows that only one child in three meets the minimum standard of exercise: three times weekly for 20 minutes. That's a big declinesince 1984 when 62 percent of children met the standard. For health's sake, don't allow yourself or your children to be part of the couch potato brigade" (Michael Colgan, M.D., The New Nutrition, 1995, p. 201, emphasis in original).
What can we do to help our children adopt healthy habits as a way of life? Here are several proven ways to reverse obesity and ill health, starting your child on the road to better physical and mental health. (A word of caution: If children are afflicted with diseases like cerebral palsy, severe visual or hearing impairment, Turner's syndrome [a congenital disorder that results in multiple physical problems including heart murmurs], or hypophosphatasia [an inherited chemical disease resulting in enzyme deficiency and a degree of deformity], we do not suggest that changes in dietary and exercise habits will effect a permanent cure.) The following common-sense advice will help most children.
Set limits on television viewing, Internet surfing and playing video games.
Study after study links electronic entertainment with declining levels of physical activity, increased consumption of junk foods and overexposure to anxiety-causing violence. Use wisdom and discretion, but get your children away from such habitual distractions and into real life. Perhaps the most effective way is to regularly engage in profitable activities with them, rather than just giving them instructions.
Teach them to guard their bodies and minds.
In regards to diet, do what is good for their health, not just what tastes good. Do your homework to learn what foods are junk and why they are harmful. Seek to understand the problems related to food colorings, preservatives and chemical additives. Some helpful books include:
The New Nutrition, by Michael Colgan, M.D., 1995.
Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, 2001.
The Diabetes Cure, by Vern Cherewatenko, M.D., and Paul Perry, 1999.
The Carbohydrate Addict's Healthy Heart Program, by Richard Heller, M.D., Rachel Heller, M.D., and Frederic Vagnini, M.D., 1999.
For mental health, expose children to challenging physical tests befitting their age.
Teach your children to extend themselves physically and to know they can reach worthwhile goals. Begin by getting a physical examination for each of them so you can wisely plan their physical-development program. If they are out of shape, start moderately and gradually build up their endurance.
Barring a limiting disease or physical impairment, encourage them to break through the pain barrier of exercise by participating in such activities as running several miles or kilometers or hiking with loaded packs. These types of activities teach the skill of enduring the trials of life they will inevitably encounter.
Several times weekly, engage your children in some type of aerobic exercise such as tennis, basketball, running or swimming. Make it vigorous enough to leave them sweating and breathing hard. Teach them that ascending to the top of satisfying emotional mountains in life sometimes requires journeys through low valleys.
Here is some rock-solid advice for concerned parents: If you smoke, seek help so you can stop. If you overeat, eat less. If you tend to be lazy, become more active. If you are physically impaired, at least be the cheerleader who inspires your children to be active. After all, your children are just little copies of you. They mimic how you think and what you do. For their good health, aren't your children worth some changes?