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Alabamians struggle with childhood obesity

By Staff
Childhood obesity is an epidemic in the United States, according to a recent Alabama Cooperative Extension System study.
The results of the study, which included more than 400 fourth and fifth-graders in Bullock, Macon and Wilcox counties, paint an especially grim picture of Alabama's obesity problem, particularly in west Alabama.
A third of all Black Belt children are overweight or in danger of becoming overweight. Type II diabetes, a disease also commonly known as adult onset diabetes, is now being diagnosed in children as young as two, according to Dr. Jean Weese, an Extension food scientist and Auburn University associate professor of nutrition and food science who served as the study's principal investigator.
The percentage of overweight females in the study was twice the national average for children between the ages of 9 and 10. Roughly 30 percent of females ages 9 and 10 were overweight, compared with about 20 percent of boys who participated in the study.
The study also turned up several interesting but unexpected trends. For example, the percentage of overweight females decreased as they got older, while boys, particularly those in the at-risk category of becoming heavy, became overweight as they reached adulthood.
The study also revealed that students who drank milk and consumed greater amounts of calcium, despite the extra calories, tended to have lower body weights.
Weese and the other researchers also were surprised to learn that the most obese children, compared with other participants in the study, tended to consume fewer calories.
"It did appear that the more obese tended to eat less," she said. "The thinner people are eating more, and that really surprised us. But this probably has a lot to do with levels of physical activity. When you become less active, the body's metabolism slows to conserve energy."
The findings, Weese said, reinforce what researchers have suspected all along: that the solution to obesity involves far more than changing bad eating habits.
"We often think that obesity follows poor eating habits and that all we have to do is teach people to replace these poor habits with healthier alternatives," Weese said. "But the issue is far more complicated than that."
In the course of the study, Weese and the other researchers discovered that inadequate exercise was as much a factor as poor nutrition in causing obesity. However, based on the study's findings, Weese said changing poor lifestyle habits poses as big a challenge as altering eating habits. That's because many Black Belt residents simply lack the opportunities for exercise that are taken for granted in many affluent regions of the state.
"There's no incentive to walk up the street for a visit with a neighbor because, due to the economic and population decline that has occurred within the region during the last few decades, people often live far apart," she said.
Safety is another major concern, she said.
"Many parents, especially in housing projects, simply don't feel it's safe to allow their kids to play outside. So for many of these kids, the rule is to come home, lock the door and sit until the parent comes home. About all there is left to do is watch TV and eat snack food."
The good news is that the study and many others to follow will help researchers fine tune educational efforts already under way.
"What we're learning is that the emphasis should be on wider, team-oriented approaches focusing on activities that complement the nutrition education programs already in place," Weese said. "One example would be working with Extension community development experts and local community activists to identify places where well-equipped, safe playgrounds can be built."
Dr. Jean Weese, Alabama Cooperative Extension System Food Scientist and Auburn University Associate Professor of Nutrition and Food Science

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