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One out of three children in the U.S. is considered overweight or obese, according to KidsHealth.org. With this number growing, it poses an important question.
Who is to blame for a child’s obesity?
Children are influenced by the environment around them; what they see is what they will do. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explained in a study on childhood obesity that, “children see eating as a social event in which they observe the behavior and preferences of others.”
The study found that these behaviors are directly related to their parents who, according to the DHHS, have an “influential effect on their child’s future food selection.”
“A child’s eating habits are directly influenced by their environment,” said Anthony Licatese, an Oswego State nutrition professor.
Licatese said that one important factor to childhood obesity is cultural eating habits within a family.
“Certain cultures are going to have different eating habits,” Licatese said. He added that if children’s culture is based around the importance of food, it could make or break their diet.
“Familial tendencies are going to be carried through,” Licatese said.
“Even as a nutrition professor, do I think that the way I eat during my Italian holidays is good for us?” Licatese said. “No. But am I going to do that with my children? Absolutely because that’s the way I was taught and it is tradition.”
He explained that families tend to follow tradition, and these traditions, whether healthy or not, are passed down to their youth.
According to Licatese, if a child grows up seeing that it is OK to feed children fast food, then they will grow up feeling that it is OK to feed the same sorts of food to their children.
Obesity holds serious health risks for a child. The DHHS noted that childhood obesity can lead to Type 2 Diabetes, high cholesterol and respiratory weakness.
The DHHS even explained that children have an 80 percent chance of becoming obese if one or more of their parents are.
Often parents use convenience as a reason for choosing to feed their child certain foods.
“We used to weigh heavily and give value to time spent making a good meal,” Licatese said. “We’ve gotten away from that culturally…We’ve made our life so fast-paced that there’s less influence on a home-cooked meal or even time spent together as a family.”
Licatese said parents are aware that fast food is bad for them and their child, but convenience often triumphs.
Consciously we know that the Big Mac is a bad choice, so instead Licatese suggested choosing an alternative. While eating out, opt for the whole wheat bread instead of white or go for the salad rather than the meat.
“It’s free will…. We know what’s out there [in terms of alternatives] but it’s up to us to choose them,” Licatese said.
Exercise is a key ingredient to maintaining a healthy lifestyle for children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that children should do 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day.
The CDC suggests that parents should encourage children to participate in activities that are “enjoyable and offer variety.”
Parents should make sure that children are doing three types of physical activity within their 60 minute workout.
According to the CDC these three types of physical activity include, aerobic activity, such as brisk walking or running, muscle strengthening, such as gymnastics or push-ups and bone strengthening, which includes jumping rope or running.
Parents can teach their child proper nutritional habits in the home, but it’s up to the child to take what is learned and use it in the real world.
This is when school lunches receive a bad rap, getting criticized for providing poor food choices to children. But the Oswego City School District said that it is making strides to ensure its students maintain a healthy diet.
Within the past five years the district has taken the initiative to change its eating habits.
Dennis Jerome, school lunch director for the district, said that Oswego city schools offer a variety of fresh greens and fruits daily.
“We offer fruit and vegetables in the proper quantities, and state and federal guidelines require that there has to be a fruit or vegetable on the child’s tray,” Jerome said.
He explained that he has watched how students have reacted to the nutritional strategies they have used throughout the district.
“Some kids turn their nose down at it and others have been very positive toward it,” Jerome said.
However, Jerome said he still sees students come to lunch with chips and cookies as a meal.
“I think there needs to be some type of educating of the parents both in the marketplace and in the home,” he said. “I can provide students with a nice breakfast and a nice lunch, but the chips and soda are still in the home.”
Jerome also attributes a child’s poor eating habits to economics. Unfunded mandates have caused the price of lunch to increase in the district. With that, there are many familiar who cannot afford to buy school lunch for their child every day.
This forces students to choose foods from home to bring for lunch. In some cases that food may be nutritional and other times it may not be, depending on the household.
“Socio-economically, if you have less money, there is going to be poorer nutrition,” Licatese said.
Between 2003 and 2007, obesity within New York City increased from 20 percent to 22 percent, according to the New York State Department of Health.
The NYSDH found that this increase in obesity was the highest “among people living in low-income neighborhoods.” The NYSDH website noted that, “Differences in obesity existed between neighborhoods with different levels of access to physical activity opportunities and food amenities.”
Jerome takes pride in the school district’s efforts. “These healthy choices are available on a daily basis,” he said. “I invite anyone to come in and view the fresh fruit and salads that we have here for kids.”
Parents can stop childhood obesity in its tracks, Licatese explained; it’s all about conditioning.
“It’s psychological,” Licatese said.
“When a child gets through a doctor’s appointment and behaves well, they are rewarded with a treat,” Licatese said. Usually this treat is a lollipop or ice cream.
“As a society we don’t say, ‘oh you were such a good girl; here’s an apple or tomato’,” Licatese said. “[In this situation] when I give my daughter grapes instead of the lollipop, I’m conditioning her to understand that the grapes are the treat.”
Diana Boyer is a resident of Oswego and a mother of two children. She believes parents have a direct influence on a child when it comes to food.
Boyer explained that when it comes to kids going out into the real world, they have their own will.
“They’re going to choose what they want to eat,” she said. “That’s why I try to eat healthy myself so they can see what good eating habits look like.”
At the end of the day it’s not about depriving the child of the sweet stuff. Licatese said that moderation is the key.
“They can have that brownie or some ice cream but watch for portion control.”