A Weighty Issue: Ever-Fatter Kids

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A little exercise wouldn't hurt today's youth

Ah, kids today. Slinking around in their Britney Spears outfits or their mini–WWF getups — while their not-so-mini bellies bulge over their waistbands.

That's right, kids of America. You're getting fatter every time we look at you. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, as of 1999, 13 percent of kids ages 6 to 11 were overweight, up from 11 percent during the last survey period, between 1988 and 1994. A whopping 14 percent — up from a previous 11 percent — of teens are now considered overweight.

James Rosen, a psychology professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington, and the head of the UVM Weight Control Program, spoke with TIME.com about kids' raging battle of the bulge.

Why are kids getting fatter?

Rosen: When we look at kids' lives today, we're seeing the same convergence of events that's promoting greater obesity in adults: Less physical activity and a toxic food environment. If you study the two ingredients that influence weight — physical activity and nutrition — you can see the root of the problem. Young kids tend to be very active, but that activity level drops off in middle adolescence, around the start of high school. That's especially true for girls, who can experience a lot of peer pressure not to participate in sports.

Meanwhile, to make matters worse, schools are decreasing their physical activity programs and deemphasizing sports teams. So kids' environment is becoming less and less supportive of physical activity just when kids need it the most.

Then, of course, you have the food issue. In terms of eating behaviors and nutrition, kids live in a kind of toxic environment. Kids' social lives mean they're more likely than adults to consume most of their calories at restaurants or parties or somewhere else away from home. That social trend leads kids to consume higher-calorie and higher-fat foods — and in portion sizes you won't see at home. Fast food restaurants, for example, "super-size" everything as a way of maintaining customer loyalty, so you have kids regularly drinking 20- ounce Cokes versus a more normal serving of 10 ounces.

So what can we do to reverse this trend?

Rosen: We can't throw up our hands and figure this is hopeless. What we need now is more scientific investigation. There needs to be a top-down encouragement to investigate and promote pediatric weight control services at the local, state and federal levels.

One of the main problems is that while we devote a lot of attention to helping adults lose weight, researchers and health experts aren't putting the same emphasis on helping kids to find a healthy weight. Take the past 25 years: In my research, I found that there are over 80 high-quality, scientific weight control studies for adults. In the same time period, there were 15 designed for children and two for adolescents.

What can parents of overweight kids do to help?

Rosen: Parents are very frustrated. It's very challenging to have an overweight adolescent. Parents have a lot of fears about telling a kid they need to lose weight — they worry it will push a child into an eating disorder. We also have a strong fat-acceptance movement in the United States, and some parents worry that pushing kids to lose weight means their kid will think they're not good enough, or not loved because of their weight.

So parents walk on eggshells when they talk to teenagers about weight issues. They balance between "You need to lose weight, you have a terrible problem" and not providing any support at all, mostly out of fear.

Parents need to come to terms with the fact that the home environment is a powerful influence — kids aren't going to eat better unless their home environments are cleaned up. For a lot of parents, that's really hard to do, but you can't have Mom and Dad sitting on the couch, munching on peanut M&M's and saying no to their kids.

There is good news: We've found that kids lose weight when parents are on the same program. The most successful weight loss programs for kids are called "family weight control" plans. Mom and Dad, even if they don't have weight problems, have to go through the same program as their kid and learn how to encourage and participate in exercise, how to eat healthily in restaurants. If a parent is on a program, they'll be more excited about it and won't feel hypocritical telling their kids to go out and get some exercise.