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Archive for Thursday, March 13, 2003

Obesity no longer a problem solely for adult Americans

March 13, 2003

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We are fat and getting fatter.

And it's not just the middle-age paunch. Obesity increasingly is a problem with young people.

As chief of staff at Kansas University's Watkins Health Center, Dr. Myra Strother is seeing a younger generation of Americans becoming obese. In the past 10 years, she said, the problem has worsened.

"The percentage of obese Americans has gone up at such a drastic rate," Strother said. "It's increasing at epidemic proportions."

State and Lawrence-area statistics prove it.

Across the state, according to Kansas Health Institute research released last month, more than one in five -- or more than 20 percent -- of Kansans are obese, up from 13 percent in 1992. And nearly 60 percent of Kansans are overweight.

In Douglas County, the picture is about the same.

A health survey commissioned by the Community Health Improvement Program in 1998 showed 74 percent of Douglas County residents did not exercise regularly and 21 percent were overweight.

Get off the couch

Kansas University students sink their teeth into hamburgers during
a lunch break at the Kansas Union. A recent health survey
commissioned by the Community Health Improvement Program showed
that 74 percent of Douglas County residents did not exercise
regularly and 21 percent were, by definition, overweight.

Kansas University students sink their teeth into hamburgers during a lunch break at the Kansas Union. A recent health survey commissioned by the Community Health Improvement Program showed that 74 percent of Douglas County residents did not exercise regularly and 21 percent were, by definition, overweight.

Studies are also revealing more health problems tied to obesity, including diabetes, osteoarthritis and multiple types of cancer. National health officials are pleading with Americans to get off the couch and onto the treadmill.

Experts attribute the increasing obesity to a simple, but problematic, trend: Too much sitting around.

Martha Berner, a clinical dietitian at the KU Medical Center, calls it screen time -- children and parents watching television, playing video games or using the computer. People are getting less healthy because they are less active, Berner said.

"We're doing less exercise. We take a car everywhere," she said. "Parents are afraid to let their children bike across the street."

An increase in fast-food consumption isn't helping, either, Berner said.

Some organizations in Douglas County are trying to help residents keep off the weight, including the Community Health Improvement Project, a Lawrence-based group made up of 16 Douglas County health officials.

Makayla Johnson, a kindergartner at Wakarusa Valley School, crosses
a balance beam while sixth-grader Holly Harrison spots her during a
physical education class. An exercise program at Wakarusa Valley
called "Get Moving" motivates children to exercise.

Makayla Johnson, a kindergartner at Wakarusa Valley School, crosses a balance beam while sixth-grader Holly Harrison spots her during a physical education class. An exercise program at Wakarusa Valley called "Get Moving" motivates children to exercise.

"The goal of CHIP is to look at the health issues in Douglas County and work to address those," director Michelle Miller said. In recent years, obesity has become one of CHIP's top priorities.

Focus on youths

In fighting obesity, Miller and CHIP are focusing on young people with community-based initiatives. One of those, called Get Moving, is used in 17 Douglas County elementary schools. Children are encouraged to exercise through a reward system.

This is the second year the Get Moving program has existed districtwide, but students at Wakarusa Valley School have been earning points for 10 years.

"We're just trying to get kids active," said Dorothy Kempf, physical education teacher at Wakarusa Valley. "P.E. is a great start, but it's not enough."

Kempf, who has taught at Wakarusa Valley for 12 years, has been part of Get Moving since its inception and said entire families had gotten involved with the program.

"We encourage kids to exercise together and make it part of family quality time," Kempf said.

Students receive cards with 25 slots to fill out; each slot represents 30 minutes of exercise. For each completed card, students receive small, plastic feet to attach to their shoelaces. After four completed cards, a student wins a pool pass.

"I make a big deal of it when a kid turns in a card," Kempf said.


To help adults keep off the pounds, CHIP has teamed with K-State Extension for a program called "Walk Kansas." Teams of six people exercise and log the number of miles they walk each day, record them on a map of Kansas, and attempt to trek across the state as a goal.

Fat college kids, too

On the Kansas University campus, Strother said she always was reminding her patients to avoid the typical college lifestyle: studying all the time, eating pizza on demand and drinking beer.

"I don't think people need to be skinny. They just need to be healthy," she said.

When counseling college students, Strother said, she focuses on encouraging exercise rather than dieting.

"For college students, now is the time to build a more active lifestyle," she said.

Obesity-related health problems are becoming prevalent on campus. Strother said she was seeing more students in their 20s developing adult-onset diabetes, a situation unheard of 10 years ago.

The greatest challenge in treating obesity is that the prescription isn't easy to swallow, Strother said.

"With obesity, we don't have a magic pill," she said. "It requires a lifestyle change."

Losing weight

Susan Pomeroy, 52, Lawrence, weighed just under 200 pounds when she decided to make a lifestyle change.

"I was more concerned with how I looked, which was one of the reasons it was a challenge to keep the weight off," Pomeroy said.

Pomeroy joined Weight Watchers in 1988 and dropped 65 pounds to reach her target weight. But it wasn't easy to keep the weight off, she said, and she eventually had to rejoin the program.

Pomeroy now has been a Weight Watcher group leader for two years and has successfully stayed at her target weight. It may be, she said, because of different motivations.

"Now I'm more concerned about health and how I feel," she said. "It's part of the aging process, I guess."

As a group leader, Pomeroy has started to see an increasing number of young people taking steps to control their weight.

"People are also beginning to understand and deal with this in a productive manner," she said.

Limiting carbs

At the Lawrence Family Practice Center, Dr. Mary Vernon approaches the obesity epidemic from a different angle. As a certified bariatrician, Vernon specializes in the medicinal and dietary treatment of obesity and its associated health problems.

More and more, she is encouraging her patients to limit carbohydrates consumption. Vernon said about 80 percent of her patients benefited from minimizing carbohydrates.

Vernon first entered bariatrics after becoming frustrated with the medical field's insistence on only offering one way to treat all people suffering from obesity.

"Once I could individualize my treatment, my ability to help people skyrocketed," Vernon said.

Obesity as a nationwide epidemic stems from most Americans' ability to have whatever food they want, whenever they want it, she said.

"We have access to any food for which we have a taste," Vernon said.

Americans today haven't had to do rigorous physical activity to put food on the table.

"We just lost the part about walking behind the plow," she said.

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