Childhood Obesity: Beyond Baby Fat

Today, nearly 10 percent of kids ages 2 to 5 are obese, and the numbers are growing along with waistlines. Here's what you can do now to prevent weight problems later.

One Family's Struggle

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Until the blood test, Stacey Parisi, of Howard Beach, New York, had never worried about her son, Phillip's, weight. Sure, he was a chubby baby, often charting above the 90th percentile for weight and only 50 to 60 for height. But Parisi was confident that the baby fat would simply burn off as Phillip got older. So you can imagine her shock when the doctor called earlier this year with bad news about 4-year-old Phillip's cholesterol. At 254, it wasn't merely high -- it was actually higher than Phillip Sr.'s 246, and way beyond 170, the American Heart Association's target level for children. "I've always been worried about cholesterol with my husband," Parisi says, "and now I have a 4-year-old I have to worry about."

At 47 pounds, Phillip's body mass index (BMI), a calculation that, for children, uses height, weight, age, and gender to determine total body fat, is above the 95th percentile. That puts him in the obese category, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Doctors, including a lipid disorder specialist, have said they're not overly concerned now because he is young enough to make the changes necessary to avoid disease. They warn, however, that Phillip's weight could become a problem in the future, especially if he were to trade in his sneakers for a video game controller. That, combined with a family history of overweight and heart disease, was enough to convince Parisi to revamp household habits.

Small Changes Toward Better Health

She started by reading food labels. One of the first things to go was the boxed macaroni and cheese. Now she makes her own and controls the amount of cheddar and butter. Instead of the instant pancake mix, she buys the basic variety and adds her own egg whites and skim milk. Cheese, yogurt, and milk are all low-fat or fat-free. And Phillip Sr., never a fan of vegetables, is now filling his plate with them. Being a role model matters when it comes to diet. "It's hard to change habits, but slowly we're working on them," says Parisi. These changes have helped Phillip's cholesterol come down 25 points so far. And his weight gain has been steady -- another good sign.

The Parisis are one of a growing number of families worried about their children's waistlines and the diseases that could come along with obesity. Sandra Hassink, MD, director of the Pediatric Weight Management Clinic at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, in Wilmington, Delaware, says that about two-thirds of the kids treated for obesity in her weight management program have high cholesterol. And nationwide, 9 percent of children ages 2 to 5 are above the 95th percentile, according to research from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, in New Jersey, and The Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C. Thirty years ago, that number was 6.5 percent. Plus, one out of every five 4-year-olds who is obese will continue to carry extra weight in adulthood, says Dr. Hassink, who is also the editor in chief of the AAP's new book, A Parent's Guide to Childhood Obesity: A Road Map to Health (IPG).

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