More than 12% of Missouri children are obese, but the 2018 rate held steady from the year before, according to a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Although obesity among Missourians age 10-17 is relatively unchanged, doctors say the stabilizing rate is a sign that public awareness campaigns and other health initiatives are working.
“I think the fact it’s not going up is a great thing to see,” said Julie Benard, a Columbia pediatrician who specializes in treating childhood obesity. “It’s a great thing to see, at least for our initial efforts in making sure we’re at least curbing the trend of childhood obesity.”
While Missouri has an adult obesity rate of 35% — one of the highest in the nation — its childhood obesity rate ranks 15th.
Childhood obesity rates in the U.S. rose rapidly between the 1970s and early 2000s from close to 5% to 17% in 2003. In recent years, the rates have started to level off, a sign that parents may be working harder to give their kids healthy diets and make sure they’re exercising enough, Benard said.
Obesity increases a child’s risk of asthma, heart disease and diabetes. Rates rise with age, and people of color and poorer people have much higher rates of obesity than their wealthier, white counterparts.
When families are squeezed for time and money, health often falls by the wayside, said Jane Ann McWilliams-Sykes, an elementary school nurse at Dewey International School in St. Louis’ Dogtown neighborhood.
“If your mom is working several jobs to keep things going, and your dad is working several jobs, it is often easy to get fast food, which is not particularly healthy food for dinner,” McWilliams-Sykes said. “When you are getting off work at 5 o’clock, to get home and fix a meal would be, I don’t know, another hour? It’s easier and more cost-effective for your time to pick up some fast food.”
She sees kids at the school where she works struggling with their weight who are embarrassed to participate in active play during recess with their peers, she said.
“The extra weight makes them not want to be active, and if they’re not active and they’re eating, they’re gaining more weight,” McWilliams-Sykes said.
The report outlines a number of policy changes Missouri legislators could make to encourage healthier kids, such as limits for screen time in early childhood education programs and a requirement that high school students have physical education classes for a set amount of time each day.
Because kids spend so much time in class, schools have a responsibility to teach kids healthy habits, even if parents aren’t able to, McWilliams-Sykes said.
For example, Dewey International has a large vegetable garden in which kids grow their own salad fixings. At the end of the year, kids can create their own salad with the vegetables they grow, she said. Dewey has a salad bar available for every lunch, she said.
Controlling weight gain in early childhood is the best way to prevent it in adolescents and teenagers, said Jamie Bussel, senior program manager at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
It’s “much more cost-effective and easiest to address in the early years than to mitigate it and treat it later on,” she said. “If we can get kids to a healthy weight by kindergarten, the likelihood that they retain that healthy-weight trajectory through adolescence and early adulthood is much higher."
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