At 16, Lloyd Lamb already knows a thing or two about cruelty and loneliness. The Marion, Ind., 10th-grader is bright and outgoing. He plays golf and wrestles. He is also 5 ft. 8 in., weighs 200 lbs. and at times suffers the taunts of classmates. Lamb says he works hard to ignore them, but there are moments, he admits, when he gets "depressed and lonely."
There must be a lot of lonely kids in America these days, judging from the skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity. According to the latest federal figures, the percentage of youngsters ages 6 to 11 who are overweight has tripled since the 1960s, to 13%. As many as 1 in 7 kids is obese, and doctors are seeing dangerously obese children as young as age two.
"We've never had a population like this before," says Naomi Neufeld, a pediatric endocrinologist and director of KidShape, a nonprofit weight-loss program in Los Angeles. "Children who are overweight are 20% to 30% heavier now than they were even 10 years ago. We can't even imagine the medical costs we will be seeing in the future. It feels like Armageddon."
That's hardly an exaggeration. Last month the Surgeon General issued an urgent call for the nation to fight its growing weight problem, a move that was sparked in part by the epidemic rates of childhood obesity. Overweight children are more than twice as likely to have high blood pressure or heart disease as children of normal weight. Even more alarming is the number of children with Type 2, or non-insulin-dependent, diabetes. Once known as adult-onset diabetes--before so many children started getting it--Type 2 diabetes puts kids at risk for very adult ailments, including blindness, nerve damage, kidney failure and cardiovascular disease.
What can parents do to protect their children from the dangers of too much poundage? A lot--especially if they start early, before their kids get into the habit of eating high-fat, high-sugar foods and out of the habit of exercising regularly. Kids are most vulnerable to ballooning weight in early childhood and then again in adolescence, says Dr. William Dietz, director of the division of nutrition and physical activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Children normally lose fat from ages one to six or seven. When they start putting on excess pounds as toddlers, they are at heightened risk for obesity in adulthood for reasons that are not well understood.
Genes certainly contribute, but there's much that parents can do to influence the way their children eat and to lower the chances they will end up obese. Young children are keenly attuned to how many calories they need to grow and maintain a normal weight; they know when they are hungry and when they are full. But most kids quit listening to those internal cues by the time they reach school age. The reason? Parents, says Leann Birch, a psychologist at Penn State University. "There are things parents do with the best of intentions that turn out to be counterproductive," she says. A familiar example: insisting that children clean their plate, a rule that can teach kids to eat when they are not hungry.