Ways to Help Obese Kids and Teens

Medical alarms are ringing about the dramatic spike in childhood obesity. About 17 percent of U.S. children, ages 2 through 19, are obese – a whopping 300 percent increase in just one generation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We know that childhood obesity is growing by leaps and bounds,” says Anthony Gonzalez, M.D., medical director of  the Weight-loss Surgery Program at South Miami Hospital.   “The active lifestyle of kids and teens has decreased, but the amount of food consumed has increased.”

Accessorized with smart phones, video games and computer tablets, children are spending more time in sedentary activities and less time burning calories outdoors through physical activities. Super-sized food portions—at home and at restaurants—add to the problem and increase a child’s risk of sleep apnea, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, Dr. Gonzalez says.

Health statistics are sobering, especially when it comes to long-term risks. Seventy percent of obese kids have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease and nearly 40 percent of have two or more risk factors, according to one medical study.

“If children are overweight, obesity in adulthood is likely to be more severe. Adult obesity is associated with a number of serious health conditions including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers,” the CDC reports.

What’s more, the overweight child could also suffer from a variety of social and psychological problems, including discrimination, depression and low self-esteem, according to the CDC. Problems and solutions related to obesity extend beyond the child or teen.

“In order to deal with childhood obesity, there have to be changes around the entire household,” Dr. Gonzalez says.

He recommends these family-centered strategies for handling childhood obesity.

Education: Know your child’s numbers, especially when it comes to body mass index, or BMI, a calculation that uses weight and height to determine if your child is obese or overweight. The CDC offers an online BMI calculator for children and teens.  .   A child is considered overweight if the BMI is at the 85th percentile or higher and obese if the BMI is in the 95th percentile and above, based on other children of the same sex and age.

Fact-finding mission:  Discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician. Find out if there is a hormonal imbalance or other medical problems. If standard tests suggest any abnormalities, your pediatrician may refer you to a specialist, such as an endocrinologist.

Family recruitment: The entire family should play a role in supporting a healthier lifestyle for the obese child or teen. Dr. Gonzalez prescribes a new menu of outdoor family fun and a healthier approach to food.

Nutritional counseling: Did you know that sugary beverages are the main source of extra sugar and calories for kids in the U.S?  A nutritionist or a dietitian can help you map out a meal plan for healthy school lunches, dinners and snacks. Nutritional counseling is available from a variety of programs, including community events and medical offices. We Can, a free national fitness program, offers a variety of family-friendly activities and meal-planning tools.

And when other methods are unsuccessful, weight-loss surgery is an option for a morbidly obese adolescent. The Weight-loss Surgery Program at South Miami Hospital has a service designed especially for adolescents, ages 14-21.  The teen and the family work closely with a bariatric surgeon, bariatric nurse coordinator, bariatric dietitian, exercise physiologist, weight-loss coach and bariatric patient navigator.

Once families decide on weight-loss surgery, the adolescents enroll in a three-month exercise program geared to their age and development to get ready for the procedure.  To qualify for weight-loss surgery, the teen must have reached “bone maturity,” which means fully grown as determined by a physician. Additionally, candidates and their family must undergo a psychological evaluation to make sure that the teen will be compliant and the family will be supportive of the post-surgery routine, which includes exercise, nutrition and a vitamin regimen.

“It’s a multi-disciplinary approach to realign the child’s behavior,” Dr. Gonzalez says.

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