February 6, 2002 | By: Aimee D. Heald
LEXINGTON, KY.

The growing population of overweight and obese Kentucky children and adolescents is a disturbing trend. Nationally, the number of overweight children has nearly doubled in the last two decades, while the number of overweight teens has nearly tripled.

 "If we continue at this rate, we could see nearly 50 percent of our adolescents overweight in the future." said Janet Tietyen, UK Extension specialist for family and consumer sciences. “There have been dramatic changes in the food children have access to over the last decade or so. When you consider the increase in fast food establishments, access to “junk” food at school and a decrease in physical activity, you begin to see how this trend started.”

Tietyen is part of the Coalition on Type 2 Diabetes and Overweight in Children in Kentucky. She and her colleagues are researching ways to reverse the growing problem of obesity and diabetes in the Commonwealth’s youth. Part of the coalition effort includes introducing legislation that, if passed, would start at the school level by improving continuing education of food service directors, addressing competitive food sales rules and implementing a policy for increased physical activity. The effort is endorsed by the Kentucky Dietetic Association, Kentucky School Food Service Association, Kentucky PTA, and Kentucky Education Association.

“One of the things we’re proposing is that schools replace some items in vending machines with healthier choices, such as pretzels, water, milk or juice,” Tietyen said. There are many things children can snack on that are lower in fat and sugar than the choices they now have. Also, kids are just a lot less active these days and we want them to realize the importance of exercise in their lives.”

Tietyen emphasized that good nutrition in children and diabetes have been the focus of many educational programs in 4-H and family and consumer science programs.

“We want to educate not only the children, but those who take care of them,” she said. “We do training for childcare providers, which is often related to nutrition. 4-H programs do a good, solid job of educating kids about the food pyramid, portion size and what a balanced diet looks like.”

Obesity in childhood often leads to obesity in adulthood. Tietyen said research shows that an overweight child is 10 times more likely to become an obese adult. Obesity is a risk factor for many diseases.

“Overweight adolescents are more likely to develop diseases that were once only seen in adulthood,” she said. “Things like type 2 diabetes, high blood lipids, hypertension, early maturation and orthopedic problems sadly are now common in overweight youth according to U.S. Surgeon General.”

Typically if someone loses weight, becomes more active, and eats less fat, blood sugar levels will come back under control, she said. But, some research shows the longer someone is overweight, the more likely they are to develop type 2 diabetes. So, if children are becoming overweight and staying overweight all their lives, Tietyen believes it becomes a real issue.

A University of Kentucky undergraduate research project also discovered that obesity seems to be more of a problem among low income Kentucky adults.

“We found that the very, very poor do not tend to be very overweight, but for people living just below the poverty level, more than 50 percent of those are overweight,” she said. “It’s all about everyday choices. We have to help these individuals learn how to cook, eat healthy, and become more active on minimal incomes.”

Tietyen admits preventing the problem before it starts is much easier than trying to reverse it when someone has already become overweight.

“Children and even teen-agers are very responsive to environmental changes in school, the community, and in their family,” she said. “If we can take a very broad approach, which is what Extension is all about, and help the entire community learn better lifestyle choices, we will be helping the community’s youngest members as well. Everyone would be supportive of the children and it would make changes much easier.”

Research shows that the largest determining factor of making changes is the influence of a peer group, even more so than parents and school. Tietyen said 4-H programs like camping, livestock showing, and fair projects, to name a few, reach children in their peer groups and provide a natural place to influence healthy lifestyles.

The bottom line is that children need to learn healthy habits while they are young, so their adult lives will be healthy. Tietyen suggested small changes in daily living such as preparing food at home, being more active, eating less fat and sugar, as ways to become healthier.

“You have much more control over what you eat if you fix it yourself,” she said. “To put it in perspective think about portion size in fast food. A regular serving of french fries by USDA standards is one-half cup, or about 200 calories. A small order of fries at popular fast food places is a little more than that at 250 calories. If you ‘super-size’ it, you boost that to 500 calories very fast, and that doesn’t even count the soft drink or the sandwich.”

Contact: 

Janet Tietyen  859-257-1812