Baby Fat a Serious Problem

Armen Hareyan's picture

It's hard to believe that french fries and soft drinks are routinely given to children as young as 2 years of age. However, the fact is that many toddlers are consuming foods high in fat, sugar and salt instead of eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

Jennifer Cheng, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center, says the number of overweight or obese children has increased dramatically in recent years. Studies have confirmed that the problem starts early. As many as 15 percent of preschoolers are overweight or obese and already showing early warning signs for diabetes by age 5.

"This is especially disturbing because children who are obese are more prone to have health problems as adults," says Cheng. "These conditions include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. They're also more likely to have poor self-esteem and social problems."

Cheng, who serves on a medical board looking at the problem of childhood obesity, says it's easy to simply fault parents and fast food chains for the problem. But it's a much more complex issue, she says.

"Often there is a financial barrier," Cheng explains. "Parents cannot necessarily purchase the healthier choices in food because it's just cheaper to go get a Happy Meal. In addition, a lot of people live in unsafe neighborhoods, so there aren't a lot of options as far as getting children to be physically active."

There are some recent encouraging signs in the campaign against childhood obesity, according to Cheng. She points to some fast-food chains that now offer low-fat milk as an alternative to soft drinks on children's menus, and to the addition of more salad options at fast-food restaurants.


"I think we're seeing a positive trend," she says. "The chain restaurants are headed in the right direction, but they still have a long way to go."

She says parents can take some basic steps to help their kids avoid excess weight gain: limit the amount of junk food available at home; know what your children eat away from home; eat meals together as often as possible; encourage physical activity; and, above all, be a good role model by eating a healthy diet yourself.

Cheng says it will take a collaborative effort by parents, school and health officials and others to win the war against childhood obesity.

"The longer you wait to correct the problem, the worse the odds are," she says. "Up to 80 percent of obese children and adolescents remain obese as adults."


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