Childhood Obesity: A Dietitian’s Perspective
This month has been deemed National Childhood Obesity Awareness month by President Barack Obama. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, as I have spent the past two years working at a pediatric obesity clinic, in Louisville, Kentucky. I worked as a Registered Dietitian, providing nutrition counseling to families and teaching cooking classes to kids. I would like to share some of my experiences from the time I spent there.
I arrived at my first day of work, anxious and excited. I had spent the previous year also working with obese children in Olympia, WA, so I felt well-equipped for the job I was about to begin. I quickly realized that nothing could have prepared me for the challenges I would face. My first client was our youngest, and 18-month old boy, whose weight gain was a mystery to doctors, but seemed to stem from the result of a vicious custody battle between his parents. Later in the day I would meet a five year old with hypertension, who was on a rampage running around our clinic trying to find food. When he finally found an orange, he sunk his teeth into it, skin and all. “Come on,” his mother yelled at him. “We’re going to McDonald’s.” My first day ended with a fourteen year old boy, morbidly obese, who discussed his struggles of being bullied at school and his home life, where he had to act as a caretaker for a family member.
I continued to work with these families, and several others, week after week. Each client brought with them their own unique set of challenges, that were direct results and/or contributors of their weight gain. I saw everything, from the parent who blamed their two year old for his weight (“It’s not my fault he eats all the chips!”) to the motivated teenage girl who played an active role in helping her local community to learn how to prepare nutritious meals. I met with the family of an autistic boy, who had only eaten chicken nuggets and fries his whole life, and would run from the room if he saw a vegetable. I counseled the single mother who worked the night shift and her child had to rely on school meals and frozen dinners. I met with so many families, day after day, and I found it hard to believe that I hadn’t already reached the whole population of obese children in Louisville. But new patients just kept coming in.
The consequences of childhood obesity are numerous. On an individual level, the child may face an early diagnosis of a chronic health condition, such as Diabetes, fatty liver, or high blood pressure. He may have to take several daily medications, including insulin injections. He may have trouble sleeping, because he can’t breathe properly. She most likely suffers from asthma and joint pain. She probably gets bullied by her peers and may be suffering from depression. On a broader level, the community has increased taxes to pay for her hospital and doctors visits.
I saw many sad things while I was in Kentucky but the most heartbreaking were the families who were extremely motivated to make healthy changes, while the child’s weight continued to escalate. They felt as though everything was against them and no matter what they did, they were unable to be successful.
Throughout the past few years, many efforts have been made to find a solution to this problem, including the recent soda ban by Mayor Bloomburg. But the question remains, how do we solve this problem? The answer is so complex, as obesity is a multi-factorial problem. It involves access to healthy food, government subsidies, parenting, increased video game and screen time, lack of funding for community resources, lack of access to mental health resources, lack of funding in schools for PE and healthy foods, lack of time for physicians to provide nutrition counseling, junk food advertising to kids… the list goes on and on.
Since, moving to Portland 5 months ago, the problem of childhood obesity has only crossed my mind a handful of times and the stories of these families are becoming vague memories. Portland is fortunate to have access to a plethora or healthy resources, including co-ops, healthier school food options, and outdoor activities, to name a few. Like many parts of the country, Portland’s residents are aware that there is an obesity epidemic but may not directly see the effects of it. I commend the President and the First Lady for their efforts in bringing awareness to this topic, because it really is something that effects each and every one of us in this country on some level, even if we don’t see it on a daily basis.