In California, renowned for lean bodies and active lifestyles, childhood obesity has reached epidemic levels, with more than 40% of the schoolchildren in some communities overweight, according to a new study.
Children in Southern California fare particularly badly: Of the state’s 10 largest cities, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, and Anaheim top the scales, with 36%, 35% and 32% of their children overweight, respectively. By comparison, 24% of San Francisco’s children are overweight and 26% of San Diego’s are.
Statewide, 28% of children are overweight, a 6% increase since 2001, according to the study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, a nonprofit organization in Davis.
The report, based on public school fitness test scores for fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders, is the first to look at the percentage of overweight children in specific communities.
Those extra pounds are a public health crisis poised to explode into increased rates of debilitating illnesses, the report warns.
“We were shocked by the findings, especially when we looked at specific communities,” said Harold Goldstein, the center’s executive director. “We see regions with more than one-third of kids overweight. It really is scary when you look at the long-term costs in human suffering and the economy. Three-quarters of overweight teens will become obese adults. One-third of children born in 2000 can expect to develop diabetes.”
The Central Valley town of Wasco has the highest percentage of overweight children: 42%. In nearby Delano, more than 40% are. And 41% of the children in the Los Angeles community of Wilmington are overweight.
In Pacoima, El Monte, Huntington Park and North Hollywood, well more than one-third of schoolchildren are overweight, the study found.
The rates were far lower in some areas, including the foothill community of El Dorado Hills near Sacramento, with 9% of children overweight, and Manhattan Beach, with 8%.
The report’s authors determined whether children were overweight by looking at their body fat.
Experts say that whether a community’s children tend to be fat or fit depends on demographics and socioeconomics.
“What is required to explain this in more detail is further study of what is going on in different communities,” Goldstein said. “Latinos, Pacific Islanders and blacks are more overweight than other groups. Low-income communities have a higher density of fast-food outlets, and it takes more effort for people to buy healthy foods. Los Angeles is designed for cars, and it doesn’t help that schools often don’t have physical education anymore. But the point is: The trend is worsening for everyone.”
Researchers are most concerned with the growing threat to public health.
Francine R. Kaufman, director of the Center for Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, said the diabetes program there is overflowing and can’t meet the needs of the numbers of children referred to it.
“We are seeing kids who are morbidly obese,” Kaufman said. “These kids have apnea when they go to sleep at night; they have to go on breathing devices just like adults. They have problems with their livers that we had never seen before in kids that eventually may lead to cirrhosis and the need for a transplant. We’re seeing irregular periods and hormone imbalances that may impact fertility.”
The growing levels of overweight children “reflect conditions in schools and communities that encourage children to eat and drink unhealthy foods and beverages and that limit their physical activity,” the study asserted. Children and parents are enticed by supermarket displays, the convenience of fast food and mouth-watering television ads proffering fatty, sugary goodies. “We’re looking at what could be an unending cycle of morbidity and disease,” Kaufman said.
Families like that of Rafael and Maria Navarez and their four children are fighting to combat such harmful influences. Rafael, 55, said the family was stunned when oldest son Rafael, 14, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which is tied to being overweight. Neither he nor his wife has a family history of obesity, Navarez said.
But they knew the kids were exposed to poor food choices at school and got little exercise. They were reluctant to let them go out in their Boyle Heights neighborhood to play by themselves. The senior Rafael’s part-time job as a grocery clerk did not allow for extravagances like fresh fruit and vegetables every day.
After doctors expressed concern about 8-year-old Sergio’s weight and referred the family to the Childrens Hospital program, they got serious about improving their health.
“I don’t want to blame the schools,” Rafael said. “It’s up to us as parents to stop letting kids eat bad food at school or outside school, and now we make their lunch.”
The whole family supports the younger Rafael and attends clinic sessions in which they get weighed and have their blood sugar tested. They walk together several times a week and are learning to kick bad habits.
California policymakers have begun to combat obesity, giving final approval Tuesday to legislation written by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) that bans the sale of sodas and sets requirements for food sold on school campuses during school hours.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is sponsoring a Sept. 15 summit in Sacramento to address childhood health and nutrition, has vowed to sign the measure.
Local school officials were among the first to react, with the Los Angeles and San Francisco public schools setting restrictions on vending machine sales.
“At LAUSD, we’ve adopted a centralized contract for healthy beverages with Pepsi, and we’re looking to them to help us re-brand the way children eat,” said school board President Marlene Canter.
“Some kids have been raised on fast food since they were little, and they don’t know any difference between what’s healthy and unhealthy.”
Canter said the district is developing programs to promote healthful eating, including health fairs, cooking classes aimed at different cultures and farmers markets on high school campuses.
“Everybody says: ‘You are going to be taking choice away from kids,’ but it’s not that. They will learn, if they eat a bag of potato chips, it’s like eating a vat of fat,” Canter said.
“We want children at an early age to become knowledgeable so that when they’re in their 50s and 60s they’re not at risk for chronic disease.”
Although many experts agree that more children are overweight, there is debate over the reasons and the best ways to tackle the problem.
Dan Mindus, a senior analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, said he had no quarrel with the report’s findings, but he cited other recent studies that show tremendous drops in the level of children’s physical activity and no evidence of higher caloric intake.
“Kids aren’t running around outside with their friends like they used to. They’re spending all their time with computer games and on the Internet,” he said. “And meanwhile, recess and gym class are withering on the vine with only 25% of high school students enrolled in PE at any time.”
He acknowledged that his group receives some funding from food and beverage companies, but said the organization is nonprofit, nonpartisan and independent.
“In case after case, we see evidence kids aren’t eating any more than they used to, but exercising less,” he said. “It’s almost too easy to blame snacks in school when it’s more difficult to try to get kids moving again.”
Other experts said that reversing the obesity trend would require not only removing sodas from school campuses, but changing societal norms.
“It’s about a huge increase in calories and an extremely sedentary lifestyle,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
“It’s now acceptable to eat more times during the day, acceptable to eat publicly, acceptable to sell soft drinks to kids in school and to eat huge quantities, and it didn’t used to be that way. There’s a very large complex of social trends going on that affect kids, and we’re really going to have to change society.”
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Percentages of California children in grades 5, 7 and 9 who were found to be overweight when tested in 2004:
Percent overweight, statewide
Pacific Islanders: 35.9%
American Indians: 31.7
Percent overweight, 10 largest cities
Los Angeles: 36.3%
Santa Ana: 34.8
Long Beach: 29.1
San Jose: 27.4
San Diego: 26.4
San Francisco: 24.4
Source: California Center for Public Health Advocacy