Family Issues: The Problem of Childhood Obesity

Many groups are working to help Colorado’s kids get healthy and fit. Obesity that starts in childhood can lead to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, joint problems, depression and even sleep apnea. Normally considered afflictions of adulthood, these bodily disorders are now also diseases of childhood because overweight is one of the most common medical conditions in children. The rates of overweight in both adults and children are rising in the United States and in Colorado, causing the U.S. Surgeon General to call it the single greatest health threat to our nation. Fortunately, several area programs are on the case, increasing awareness and offering solutions. First, some terminology: While most people consider “overweight” to be a step below “obese,” that is not the language used by most health organizations. The kinder, gentler terms used for children, established by the Centers for Disease Control, are “at risk for overweight” and then “overweight.”

The correct category is determined by a child’s Body Mass Index number. Growth charts use the BMI to track children and adolescents compared to others in their age range in order to help define “at risk for overweight” and “overweight.” Children between the 85th and 95th percentile of BMI for their age and gender are considered “at risk for overweight,” and children in the 95th percentile and above are considered “overweight.” To remain consistent with scientific terminology, this article will refer to either “at risk” or “overweight” instead of “obesity.” Where do America and, specifically, Colorado stand in terms of their BMI numbers? Nationally, 17 percent of children ages 2 to 11 are considered to be in the higher, “overweight” category, a statistic that has nearly tripled in the past 20 years. Colorado’s rate is 13.7 percent, with 15.1 percent in the “at risk” category. The figures are far above the 5-percent goal some organizations have set for the year 2010. Despite our frequent poll status as one of the fittest states in the country, Colorado still has a significant weight problem.

The rates in our state and country continue to rise. The reasons are basically the same for adults as they are for children — eating too much of the wrong foods accompanied by a decrease in activity. Fast food and other high-fat foods are inexpensive, readily available and heavily marketed. Between TV, movies, video games and computers, the enticements to be sedentary are many. While adult overweight is, of course, a problem unto itself, overweight in children is of concern because of the health threats it poses in childhood and into adulthood. Research shows that overweight children have an 80-percent chance of being overweight as adults. Colorado’s many recreational, exercise and fresh food options provide plenty of opportunity to eat well and be active, but they are worthwhile only if they are being utilized. Fortunately, several local organizations are capitalizing on our many opportunities to help Colorado’s children get healthy and fit.

The Junior League is an international organization of women committed to community involvement. Playing their part in bringing attention to the problem of overweight, four Junior Leagues of Colorado, spearheaded by the Junior League of Denver, are part of the “Kids in the Kitchen” initiative, a pilot program launched in 2006. The goal is to educate parents, teachers and children on the importance of healthy living by making smart dietary choices and including exercise as part of their everyday lives.

Statewide activities have included cooking demonstrations to teach kids how to prepare healthy snacks and meals themselves. There have also been grocery store tours to learn where the healthy foods can be found, all empowering kids to make good choices for themselves. The Junior League has created an interactive Web site that provides kid-friendly ways to learn about important healthy choices. Visit the Kids in the Kitchen Web site at www.kidsinthekitchen.

In response to the severity of childhood weight problems, Children’s Hospital in Denver created a Weight Management Program. Through a variety of clinics, the needs of overweight pediatric patients are addressed by involving the whole family. Each clinic aims to provide kids and families the opportunity to receive education and support in order to make lifelong changes. The program’s Web site is Click on Conditions we treat and then on weight management, or call (303) 869-3352.

A program involved in a variety of ways is the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Colorado Physical Activity and Nutrition Program, or COPAN. The organization’s School Site Task Force is part of a national program called Action for Healthy Kids™.

The mission is to address the epidemic of overweight, undernourished and sedentary youth by focusing on changes in the school environment. COPAN helps build awareness while developing and implementing policies that ensure all foods and beverages available at school contribute toward healthful eating patterns. Also provided is age-appropriate instruction in physical education programs to help students develop the skills and attitudes for a lifelong love of activity. COPAN’s Web site is

This national nonprofit with local activities was co-founded by James Hill, Ph.D., AOMF, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. America on the Move (AOM) is an initiative aimed at the prevention of excessive weight gain through small changes in diet and physical activity. The program encourages the use of pedometers to help participants monitor and increase physical activity by walking 2,000 steps per day. The program also advises decreasing caloric intake by 100 calories per day.

America on the Move offers specific programs with free tools and online resources for parents, kids and teachers, providing lesson plans they can integrate into their curricula. AOM’s local branch is called America on the Move™ in Colorado. The program is one of the elements of COPAN’s efforts to ensure that no more than 5 percent of children and adolescents will be overweight by the year 2010. America on the Move’s Web site is, with a link to Colorado under AOM Communities.

Another Colorado effort that is just getting started is the Metro Denver Health and Wellness Commission. According to the commission’s Web site, its mission is to retain Colorado’s leadership as the healthiest state and to slow and ultimately reverse current dangerous trends. Taking into consideration the economic effects of obesity, their belief is that “healthier people are more energetic, productive and place fewer demands on the health care system than their overweight and obese peers; so … our state’s healthy employees are better employees, healthier students are better students, and healthier families make healthier communities.” The MDHWC, composed of key stakeholders and leaders from metro area cities, health care providers and representatives from the academic, business and philanthropic communities, is charged with drafting a strategic plan to make changes. MDHWC’s Web site is With all of the local and national programs under way, the inevitable question is this: Are any of them working? Some organizations would say they’ve had good response. Others say it’s too soon to tell.

Speaking about all of the various programs, AOM’s Dr. Hill says, “Realistically, despite all the efforts, we are still losing the battle. That means that what we are doing isn’t enough. We can’t just sit back and say ‘We have all of these programs in place.’ We have to do something different and something more.”


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