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Grim statistics for childhood obesity in O.C.

Grim statistics for childhood obesity in O.C.

We’ve heard the statistics, perhaps to the point where we can’t process the information anymore. Childhood obesity is a soaring health challenge across the nation, and right here in Orange County. Children who are overweight or obese don’t just face physical and psychological hurdles today– they are signing on for a lifetime of serious health issues.

“I don’t think the general public knows the deep needs of Orange County, particularly in health care,” says Mike Mussallem, chairman and chief executive officer of Edwards Life Sciences.

“Most people think of Orange County as a mecca of healthy, vibrant people, and will be surprised to learn from ConnectOC that half of our adults and a quarter of our teens are obese or are approaching obesity, or that one in three residents does not have access to the health care they need.”

The reality, according to the California Department for Public Health Advocacy:

  • 38 percent of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders in California are overweight or obese.
  • 75 percent of overweight teens are likely to be obese adults.
  • 80 percent of children diagnosed with type-2 diabetes are overweight.
  • California ranks first in the nation in health expenditures due to diabetes.
  • The health and lost-productivity cost of obesity for all ages in California is $21 billion a year.

This is yet another example of an issue which is exacerbated by poverty.

The California Center for Public Health Advocacy, together with the UCLA Center for Health Policy, analyzed the results of state-mandated physical fitness tests and determined which cities have the highest obesity rates in Orange County. The three with the lowest overall obesity rates are Laguna Beach (14.3%), Newport Beach (18.3%) and Laguna Niguel (19.4%).

The cities with the highest levels of overweight youth are Anaheim (43.5%), Santa Ana (46.5%) and Stanton (51.8%)—cities which also have the highest rates of poverty, according to publichealthadvocacy.org

Several factors link obesity and poverty- dependence on processed food, the perceived affordability of high-fat, high-calorie foods, a lack of activity for children, and a deficit of full-nutrition or whole foods.

Dr. Patricia Riba, founder of Dr. Riba’s Health Club (drribashealthclub.org), is spearheading the campaign against childhood obesity by providing direct patient care and educational programs for nearly 3,000 families a year, particularly in low-income and underserved areas of Orange County, where obesity and diabetes are serious concerns. She also operates year-round after-school and summer sessions focusing on children 4-18.

Riba cautions against the belief that obvious solutions are always the best solutions.

“Portion control is not an effective way to help children lose weight,” she says. “It backfires because our bodies are programmed to store more fat during a famine. We see this all of the time; despite being on a ‘diet,’ the children are gaining more weight. This can lead to a lifetime of dysfunctional eating.

It is far better to offer a variety of healthy foods throughout the day and let the child decide how much they are going to eat.”

Riba says another major factor is the abundance of misinformation.

“There is a belief that healthy foods are expensive,” she says. “But with some guidance and tips on where to find inexpensive, nutritious, whole foods, it doesn’t have to be.”

Todd Hanson of the Orange County Community Foundation agrees.

“The number of youth and adults who are overweight has increased dramatically over the past 20-30 years,” he says. “The reason for this is societal changes—easy access to poor-quality food, restaurant portion sizes, a lack of exercise and sedentary habits.”

A key to changing the trend is to extend the zone of motivation, from children to their families into the entire community.

Fortunately, Orange County nonprofits are finding effective solutions. In addition to Dr. Riba’s Health Club, a number of local organizations are tipping the scale toward healthy lifestyles for kids at risk.

One such organization is GOALS (Growth Opportunities through Athletics, Learning and Service), which was started in Anaheim in 1994.

“Founder Dave Wilk gets the kids to decide,” Hanson says. “He also has the parents involved and takes it a step further and incorporates community involvement, which builds self-esteem.”

St. Joseph Health’s Healthy 4 Life program is dedicated to getting kids moving. A pediatrician started the program after seeing rising numbers of overweight and obese children in his practice. The programs are integrated into the school day, in order to reach the most kids.

“It is not as daunting as it may seem,” Riba says. “Get kids moving and provide them with nutrient-rich food and their bodies will stabilize. We can change this.”

To learn more about the issues and how you can help, go to ConnectOC.org.

Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation in Newport Beach.

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