Sep. 1, 1998 By Victoria White
GAINESVILLE, Fla.---Many exhausted parents marvel at their preschool children, who run and jump their way through the day and still beg to do more. But an alarming number of children under 5 don't fit this pattern: They exercise too little, eat too much and are seriously overweight, University of Florida researchers say.
In a study published recently in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, researchers from UF's colleges of Nursing and Medicine report that 32 percent of children in north Central Florida Head Start programs are obese. Most children in the government-sponsored preschool program were from low-income families.
The report adds to a growing body of scientific literature highlighting Americans' increasing problem with weight control--a problem that, for many, begins in childhood. Earlier this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that the percentage of low-income preschoolers who are overweight has climbed steadily during the past decade. Using a different methodology, the CDC researchers estimated 21.6 percent of low-income children are overweight.
"Obesity is the most widespread nutritional problem among children and adolescents in the United States," said Dr. William H. Dietz, director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion's Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity. "Because obesity affects so many children, and because of the increased risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes associated with obesity, improved treatment and prevention is essential."
Even among the toddlers and preschool-age children in the UF study, the excess weight was linked to a potential health problem: 13 percent of the obese children had high blood pressure, compared with just 4 percent of the other children, said Betsy Hernandez, clinical program coordinator for the UF College of Medicine's department of community health and family medicine, and the report's lead author.
In the UF study, obesity was determined with the help of height and weight charts from the National Center for Health Statistics. Because children are small to begin with, just a few extra pounds on their frames can push them from an average weight into obesity. For example, a 3-foot-tall girl would be considered obese if her weight were greater than 33 pounds, whereas most girls that height weigh between 26 and 30 pounds. For 3-foot-tall boys, the obese category begins at 34 pounds.
The data for the study were gathered from the 1993-94 health charts of children enrolled in 17 of 27 Head Start schools in North Central Florida. Of the 309 children included in the study, 99 were classified as obese. The heavier group averaged 42.5 inches tall and 49 pounds; the non-obese children averaged 42 inches tall and 39 pounds. The children ranged from 3.5 to 6 years old.
The study focused on children living below or just above the poverty line. In the U.S. adult population, people with lower incomes are more likely to be overweight, many studies have shown.
"For some children, weight problems may result if they do not have a safe place to go outside and play," Hernandez said.
As with adults, it has proved difficult to treat obesity in children. The UF researchers are hopeful, however, that by identifying the problem in such young children, they can influence their behavior.
"This might be a good age to work with, because young children are just beginning to develop their health habits. Maybe we could get them to make some changes before unhealthy behaviors are internalized," said Constance R. Uphold, an associate professor in the College of Nursing and a co-author of the paper.
Researchers caution against putting children on strict diets.
"The main focus of treatment at this age should be to keep their weight as stable as possible, so they can 'grow into their weight,'" Hernandez said.
Don't single out the heavy child in the family, suggests Mary Virginia Graham, an associate professor in the College of Nursing and a co-author of the paper.
"The whole family needs to learn to eat a healthy diet, because it's not the child who is selecting the doughnuts to eat, it's the parents who are making choices for their 3- or 4-year-old," Graham said. "The parents need to be role models for healthy eating and exercise. They should try to limit the time children sit in front of the TV and get them outdoors for more active play."
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