A recent study conducted by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center gave Louisiana children a "D" on its overall health status report card. Melinda Sothern, an associate professor of research/clinical exercise at LSU Health Sciences Center, was part of the study's board, which included a wide swath of leaders in business, science, medicine and education. "It's a Louisiana perspective," Sothern says. "It wasn't just the scientists that gave the grade." Sothern, author of Trim Kids, a book about overweight children, discusses Louisiana's juvenile obesity epidemic and what parents and children can do to win the battle of the bulge.
Q: How much fatter are kids today?
A: If you're talking about baby boomers versus current adults, for example, it's tripled. The number of obese children has tripled since the baby boomer generation was young. That's my generation; I'm 53. So when I was a little girl, there was about 5-10 percent obesity, and now it's 30-35 percent average for obesity in children in Louisiana. In some particular ethnicities, it's even higher than that.
Q: When the study gave Louisiana children a "D" in health, much of it was attributable to obesity and sedentary lifestyles. Are other states doing more than Louisiana to ensure kids are lean and active?
A: It's interesting because Louisiana is actually one of the leaders in addressing the childhood obesity epidemic. We are a few steps ahead of many states. If you look at the grades (from the Pennington study), the overall grade for obesity is actually "F." For physical activity, it was "D," but if you look at some of the other areas, we got Cs. In preparing professionals, we do a lot better, like training teachers to provide physical activity opportunities.
Q: But Louisiana has a higher percentage of obese children than other states?
A: Yes, but the reason for that, although not totally 100 percent known, has more to do with the fact that Louisiana has more poor children, and we have a higher number of ethnic groups in our state, and African-Americans in particular.
Q: How much of a factor is income level?
A: This is very clear in the scientific evidence. In developed countries, the poorer the child, the more at risk they are for becoming obese. In developing countries, poorer countries, the richer the child, the more chance they have of becoming overweight. It's very well documented, because most of the countries have very systematic ways of documenting their obesity levels in children and comparing it with the socio-economic status. ... We're in the process of documenting this and exploring all of this — Louisiana is one of the leaders in this. We have a lot of information in Louisiana, because the scientific community and the educational community came together many years ago and started looking at these potential causes. We think that poor children in the United States, and in particular in Louisiana, don't have access to healthy foods. ... It's also lack of access to safe places to be physically active.
Q: What about parents? How much do they influence their kids' eating and exercise habits?
A: A great deal. They are absolutely responsible for providing opportunities to their children to eat healthy foods and be physically active. That said, it's a tough job, because the minute you walk out the door with your child, the world is working very hard to either keep them overweight or make them overweight. So here are these parents, and they love to be victims. They come into my clinics and say, "What do you want me to do? This is so hard, and I'm a victim of this terrible society." And I'm like, "Great. You want to be a victim? You want the big 'V' on your chest? No, come on." My job is to empower them and give them the motivation and the feeling and the strength that they can do something about it.
Q: What are some simple steps parents can take?
A: Parents need to recognize that it's a problem. If they have just an inkling of an idea that their child may be developing a problem, make an appointment with their pediatrician. Go to a professional and get a diagnosis. Don't listen to what anybody else tells you, including what goes on in the schools, because there's lots of [different indexes, charts and fat and fitness indicators]. Don't listen to that. The only person who can diagnose obesity is a medical professional.
Once [parents] know where their child stands, they can make some concerted efforts in their home environment first. Simple steps are to just walk into the house and take the blinders off and look at it like you've never looked at it before. What does it scream at you? Sit down, grab the remote and watch TV, grab the handheld video game, eat in front of the TV. Have you actually set your home up to be an obesity-producing machine? TV in the kid's bedroom, computer in the kid's bedroom, free access to unhealthy foods within easy reach. Take a look at what you're doing and then slowly make one change per week, and get the whole family involved in it.