At every Girl Scouts meeting, Christmas concert, soccer field and swimming pool in Kentucky lies a trend that is easy to spot. It doesn't have to do with the Toms on the children's feet or the feathers affixed to their hair. It's the fact that every third child in Kentucky is overweight, and many of them are obese. As they stand in front of the crowd or struggle to swim to the other side, the problem is plain. Its consequences are not so plan, but are far-reaching.
Kentucky has the third-highest childhood obesity rate in the country and the seventh-highest rate in adult obesity, Trust for America's Health's "F as in Fat" report shows. Sixty percent of Kentucky women and 80 percent of men living the state are either overweight or obese.
Estimates show that one in three children who were born in the year 2000 will develop Type II diabetes at one point in their lives, in large part because of the food choices they make. "We're also seeing lots of heart indicators, like high-blood pressure, high lipids and cardiac changes, in kids that are overweight," said Dr. Christopher Bolling, a pediatrician in Kenton County. "And we're seeing a lot of other issues like liver disease and kids with orthopedic problems."
Obese children can also have breathing problems like sleep apnea and asthma. They struggle with low self-esteem and the depression that can result from it. And they are the first American generation expected to live a shorter life than their parents. "They're taking medicine we used to give to old people," said Duff Holcomb, the schools nurse in Laurel County. "They're 15 and 16, so what are they going to be like when they're 36?"
The issue stems from "a perfect storm" of factors, said Elaine Russell, the state's obesity prevention coordinator. "Our food is high in calories with little nutrients," she said. "A lot of physical education has been taken out of normal daily routines."
And food is everywhere, from billboards to unexpected places like cash registers at T.J. Maxx and Office Depot, Russell said. One study found kids see about 4,000 television commercials advertising food each year. During Saturday morning cartoons, they see a food ad nearly every five minutes, and about 95 percent are pushing food with poor nutritional value. "And it's not just TV," Russell said. "Look at all the billboards, look at the Internet, look at your packaging, with characters that say, 'Come see me and do the Web game.'"
The variety of food is also staggering, Russell pointed out. "Look and see how many Oreos there are. It's not just Oreo or double-stuffed. There's also ones with mint and peanut butter. How many different chips? How many different sodas? Our choices are so unlimited."
So, it's easy for children to make the wrong choices. Almost 40 percent of the total calories consumed by 2- to 18-year-olds are in the form of empty calories, meaning solid fat and added sugars. Next to Mississippi, Kentucky youth drink the most soft drinks in the country — up to 89 gallons per person, according to information researchers at the University of Kentucky's Nutrition Education Program compiled from the USDA's Food Environment Atlas. Meanwhile, just 17 percent of Kentucky high school students reported eating fruit and vegetables five times per day over a week's time, the amount recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Children adopt bad eating habits from their parents, who "gatekeepers" of the kitchen, Russell said. "If Mom and Dad are feeding you [junk food] then you tend to eat that because that's what available to you."
Parents blame busy schedules and lack of time — and they are busier, in large part because both parents work in most households. Also, many of today's parents either don't like to cook, or can't.
Debra Cotterill teaches cooking classes for the University of Kentucky's Nutrition Education Program and is often shocked at the decline in cooking skills. "There's people out there who have said to me that they literally did not know how to boil water," she said. "I've also met people who live on candy and packaged chips because they don't know how to cook." Ginger Gray, director of food services in Kenton County Schools, was not surprised, saying many of today's parents "are a generation of microwave users."
Exacerbating the problem is a lack of exercise. Gone are the days of students heading to the change room to get ready for gym class. In Kentucky, elementary schools must offer some type of physical activity for 30 minutes each day, but that can include unsupervised recess. There are no physical education requirements in middle schools, and high-school students just need to take one half-credit of phys-ed to graduate. The decline in phys-ed is coupled with the fact that kids lead an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. In Kentucky, nearly one in three high school students watch three or more hours of TV each day and more than 60 percent of kids have a TV in their bedroom.
A lack of play time after school is another culprit, in large part because "There's a lot of media that say it's not safe to go outside and play," Russell said. In fact, just over 100 children are kidnapped in a stereotypical way each year in the U.S., according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and the number of violent crimes was lower last year than it has been in 40 years. Yet, fear of the unknown is embedded in parents, Gray said, who sees parents waiting in their running cars for their children to be dropped off at bus stops. "What a huge impact changing that attitude would make," she said.
While the report "Shaping Kentucky's Future: A Community Guide to Reducing Obesity" estimates 33 percent of Kentucky children are already overweight or obese, there is no way of knowing how those numbers vary county to county, because there is no systematic collection of them. Body-mass index, a rough measure of fat to weight, is measured statewide only for children aged 2 to 4 in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. "Some individual school districts and counties are collecting more information, but it is spotty," said Sarah Walsh, senior program officer at the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.
Starting this school year, the state board of education started requiring that there be a place on the state health exam form that includes a student's BMI, though physicians are not required to fill it in. The exams are required when a student enters school in Kentucky, generally in kindergarten, and again when a student is about to enter the sixth grade. "I would say it's a start but this is not a mandate on students or parents or physicians or schools. This is an option," said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. Still, the BMI information could be shared at the aggregate level if the Department of Public Health asked for it as part of an analysis, Gross said.
But regardless of what data is collected, there is a problem "showing us basically whatever age group you look at, you've got too high of a proportion of children who are overweight and obese," said Amy Swann, senior policy analyst for Kentucky Youth Advocates. Some data show obesity rates are higher in children living in the Appalachian part of the state. Many studies also correlate children from low-income families with higher obesity rates. Giving counties an idea of where they stand is essential to getting a handle on the fight. "There is an old adage that 'what gets measured gets done,' and it couldn't be more true in this case," said Susan Zepeda, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. "Local communities need to know where they stand on this important health issue so they can track progress and really make changes with childhood obesity."