CHILDREN’S HEALTH: Study Finds ‘Surprising’ Number of State’s Youth Overweight
A "surprising segment" of the state's teenagers is approaching adulthood with a greater risk of chronic disease and possible premature death because of poor eating habits and inactivity, according to the first comprehensive, statewide study of youths' eating and exercise habits. The study, performed by the Berkeley-based Public Health Institute and funded by the California Endowment, surveyed more than 1,200 12- to 17-year-olds in 1998, finding that nearly one-third were overweight or "on the verge of being so." Children were classified as "overweight" if their body mass index exceeded the 95th percentile for their peer group and "at risk" if their index exceeded the 85th percentile. Furthermore, the study noted that half of respondents reported eating no vegetables and one-third had consumed a fast food meal the day prior to being surveyed. Pointing out that poor diet also corresponds with smoking and physical inactivity, the Los Angeles Times reports that fewer than one in three survey respondents spent at least one hour per day performing physical activity, while respondents spent twice as much time watching television or playing video games as exercising. Nearly twice as many boys as girls surveyed completed the recommended one hour of daily exercise, and girls' physical activity "declined with age."
High-Fat Foods, Culture Play Role
Nutrition experts have cited "increased intake of foods high in fat and calories in an increasingly sedentary, convenience-minded culture" as part of the problem. But schools also "are failing youngsters" by not providing healthy snack foods in vending machines and not enforcing and mandating "stringent physical education requirements," the Times reports. Weight problems are "most pronounced in certain minority groups," the survey found. For instance, half of African-American and more than one-third of Latino teenagers were either overweight or at risk of being overweight, compared to one-quarter of white and Asian-American teenagers. Ethnic disparities could be the result of a "complex interplay of environmental and genetic factors," the Times reports, adding that research has suggested some ethnicities from regions where food was scarce might have evolved biologically to retain more fat. In addition, culture, education and economics play a "strong role" for ethnic and racial minorities in defining "what is available, affordable and perceived as desirable."
The study results mirror national studies showing that the percentage of overweight children has doubled since the 1970s, raising concern among health experts who say that being overweight as a youth can lead to various health problems such as Type II diabetes, hypertension, high blood cholesterol, coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer. In addition, if individuals are overweight in their youth, their chances of being at a normal weight as an adult are less than 50%. Susan Foerster, chief of the cancer prevention and nutrition section of the California Department of Health Services, said, "The proportion of kids with these risk factors (who are) so very young is very worrisome. I have to say we've been surprised." But as teenagers "are flexible and receptive to change through education," experts believe that changes can be made at home and in schools and communities "to ensure that good habits are reinforced rather than discouraged" (Marquis, Los Angeles Times, 9/26).