Childhood obesity is a serious health condition that affects many children in Arkansas. Fostering an awareness of the causes, risks, factors and ways to address childhood obesity can help Arkansans reverse the problem, Rachel Luckett said.

Luckett is an Extension specialist-nutrition for the Cooperative Extension Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

“The causes of childhood obesity usually start based on a child’s nutritional habits at an early age,” Luckett said. “In some generations, children were taught to clean their plate, no matter the portion size or nutritional content of the meal. Habits such as these are usually taught and reinforced by parents and caregivers who provide food to children.”

According to a press release by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in six (17 percent) children in the United States is obese. Children with obesity are at higher risks for having other chronic health conditions and diseases such as asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems and type 2 diabetes. They also have more risk factors for heart disease – high blood pressure or high cholesterol – than their normal-weight peers.

For decades, processed or microwaveable foods were marketed to parents in the United States as a quick and easy way to feed the family, Luckett said. These foods, as well as products sold at convenience stores and fast food restaurants, only increased the trend of young people who may regularly eat unhealthy foods high in calories, sugars and salts (sodium).

“Regularly eating fast food meals rather than meals prepared at home is largely associated with childhood obesity,” Luckett said. “When children eat out often, their daily caloric intake tends to be too high, throwing their total caloric intake out of balance. For example, one meal at a fast food restaurant could contain an entire day’s worth of calories.”

According to the CDC, other causes of childhood obesity include physical activity behaviors, genetics, metabolism, family and home environment, and community and social factors. Obesity may also be influenced by too much time spent being inactive, lack of sleep, lack of places to go in the community to get physical activity and lack of access to affordable, healthier foods.

Luckett said there are a number of ways parents can help prevent childhood obesity and support their children’s healthy growth and well-being:

• Parents should consistently provide access to nutritious and lower-calorie foods rather than foods high in added sugars, solid fats and salts. Healthy, nutrient-dense foods include beans, peas, brown rice, old-fashioned oats, eggs, frozen or fresh fruit and vegetables, whole wheat bread and whole potatoes, she said.

• Plan and prepare different meals with healthy content throughout the week, she said.

“Parents can send their children to school with healthy meal options. During any meal, parents should ensure access to drinking water as a no-calorie alternative to sugary beverages.”

• Parents should also ensure their children are getting the right amount of daily physical activity. Bicycle riding, walking to school, running, martial arts, gymnastics, jumping rope and sports such as basketball, swimming or tennis are potentially beneficial activities for children. Parents should consult their family pediatrician to learn more about the right type of activities for children based on their age.

• Setting a good example is an essential part of encouraging children to adopt healthy and active lifestyles, Luckett said.

“Children look up to their parents and often imitate their habits or behaviors whether they are positive or negative. By placing importance on health and wellness in their own lives, parents can inspire their children to follow their example.”

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all of its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.

— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor at the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.