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Challenges, Opportunities Abound in the Fight Against Childhood Obesity

August 04, 2011

Contact:  Keith J. O’Connor, Senior Public Affairs Specialist

tel. - (w) 413-794-7656 (cell) 413-335-5341 (fax) 413-794-4333

email: keith.o’ 


SPRINGFIELD – The figures are out and they’re not good. Obesity is on the rise in America in both adults and children.

In 31 states, more than one in four adults are obese, and obesity rates among adults rose in 23 states over the past year, with no state experiencing a significant decline, according to a new report, “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future,” from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

And, when it comes to childhood obesity, the figures are equally disturbing with some reports claiming rates are the highest they have ever been - three times that of what it was in the 80s. The most current figures available in “F as in Fat” place one-third of children ages 10-17 as obese (16.4 percent) or overweight (18.2 percent).

“This is simply not acceptable and we must come together as a society, as a community, to do a better job for our kids,” said Dr. Chrystal Wittcopp, director, Pediatric Weight Management Program at Baystate Children’s Hospital.

Key to reversing the obesity epidemic, say health experts who assisted in creating the latest report, is establishing community-level programs to help people make better choices when it comes to food, providing healthier school lunches, and creating safer environments for our children where they can remain active by walking, biking and playing.

Dr. Wittcopp noted the skyrocketing figures are especially troubling because obesity is accompanied by an increased risk to developing serious illnesses.

 “We are already beginning to see an increase in type 2 diabetes, high blood

pressure and high cholesterol in our young overweight patients, diseases once seenmainly in adults,” said Dr. Wittcopp.

Despite the increasing waistlines in Massachusetts, there is a slim shadow of hope in the report, which ranked the state as the fourth slimmest in the country behind Connecticut, the District of Columbia and Colorado.

“Still, with the overall troubling statistics before us, it is especially important that we address the obesity problem head on by having structured activities planned each day for our children when they aren’t in school, so they’re not left sitting in front of the television set. There also needs to be a meal plan so they don’t snack their way throughout the day,” said Dr. Wittcopp.

The Baystate Children’s Hospital pediatrician, who has young children of her own, noted parents have a responsibility to set good examples for their children, and that includes at the dinner table.

A survey of members of the American Dietetic Association found a widespread belief among dietetics professionals that parents as role models play the primary role in preventing excessive weight gain in children as western Massachusetts and the nation struggles with an unprecedented obesity epidemic. The survey also found dietetics professionals believe simple food-related activities such as involving children in menu planning and food selection and preparation are the most effective ways to guide their dietary habits. Also, eating together as a family is important.

          In June – when the federal government introduced a new food icon called MyPlate, which replaced MyPyramid – the job was made somewhat easier for parents

who want to help their children adopt healthy eating habits.

“I believe one of the reasons why the old pyramid wasn’t very effective is that many people simply found it too confusing. The new alternative, what a dinner plate should look like when it contains the proper food, is a welcome change that I think more

people will be able to relate to,” said Dr. Wittcopp.

The plate depicts the serving sizes of fruits and vegetables – at least half of the plate – paired with lean proteins and whole grains, along with an accompanying glass for low-fat dairy.

“If you normally serve your child whole milk, switch to two percent for a couple of weeks, then down to one percent fat which still has the same amount of calcium, but is

lower in fat and calories,” said Dr. Wittcopp.

To learn how to build a healthy plate of food for your child and yourself with the new icon as a guide, visit

Parents should keep plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables at home for kids to snack on as opposed to chips and ice cream.  Experiment with new fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors. Take your children grocery shopping with you and have them pick out one new fruit or vegetable to try each week. Also, try putting grapes in the freezer for a quick, fun and cold snack for them or make them a frozen strawberry fruit smoothie made with low-fat yogurt. And, try to keep children from snacking from the box at home by keeping portions correct by portioning out a quarter of a cup into little baggies for them.

It’s also key to plan ahead, said Hilary Weiner RD, a registered dietitian in the Baystate Children’s Hospital MIGHTY program.

“Knowing what you and the kids will eat for the day is a great way to save time,  money by not eating out, and excess calories. Plan meals that are easy to prepare and that you will want to repeat,” said Weiner.

 “Summer is also the perfect time for kids to work on increasing their physical activity,” said Dr. Wittcopp.

According to a new policy statement recently issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, too much time spent dormant in front of the television or computer screen is driving the obesity epidemic in this country.

And, it’s not just the issue of becoming a couch potato that is of concern to pediatricians. The Academy in its July issue of Pediatrics stated that “television advertising drives sales of junk food, children and teens tend to snack while watching television or online, and late-night use may interfere with sleep.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends children and adolescents get at least 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day. And, staying active may be easier than you think for kids. Kara Swain, fitness coordinator, Baystate Children’s Hospital MIGHTY program, offers the tips on staying more active:

Child’s play – tag, hopscotch, jump rope, hula hoops

Sports – basketball, kickball, frisbee throwing, baseball, soccer

Family time – walks after dinner, biking through the park, volleyball or badminton which is popular at family functions such as picnics, rollerskating or rollerblading.

And, be careful what you give you child to drink. Many beverages carry extra calories. For example, just eliminating one soda a day and switching to water could equal about a 12-pound weight loss at the end of 12 months. Diet drinks are acceptable in reasonable quantities, including zero-calorie fruit waters or fruit seltzers. But, watch out for soda waters, some of which have sodium. If you offer your child juice, it should be limited to one 4-6 ounce serving a day of 100 percent juice.

Overall, water is really the best choice for quenching your child’s thirst, and if you start to offer it as their main drink, you will find that they soon will make that choice, too, as they grow, noted Weiner.

While eating at a restaurant can be a challenge, parents and children can still eat in moderation and watch their calories, too, as many restaurants now offer calorie counts on their menus, noted Dr. Wittcopp.

She suggested skipping the appetizer and dessert and just drinking water as your beverage, then selecting a regular meal to treat yourself or keep it a healthier option. Also, because restaurants tend to super-size their portions, you can ask your server to place half of your meals in take-away containers before bringing your plates to the table.

          The 12-session MIGHTY program, under the auspices of the hospital’s Pediatric Weight Management Program, includes personal fitness instruction at the YMCA, as well as interactive group classes on dietary and behavior changes for successful weight loss.

          For additional information, visit the food and nutrition section of, which has easily accessible and understandable nutrition information for the entire family on your goal of adopting healthy eating habits and a healthier lifestyle.

For more information, visit the Pediatric Weight Management Program