Opinion: Halloween and childhood obesity

For adults who care about the many life problems that accompany childhood obesity, Halloween presents a paradox. On one hand, we want to encourage children to eat healthy foods and snacks in order to maintain a good ratio of weight to height; on the other hand, we don’t want to disappoint children on the special day that now challenges Christmas for recognition as the most celebrated day of the year.


Judging by the many house and lawn decorations in my neighborhood, I assume that parents go to elaborate extreme to make sure that Halloween is a special day. I also assume that those same parents want their children to be healthy. Yet, on the Eve of All Hallows, children will return from their trick-or-treat raid on their neighbors with a pillowcase full of fats and sugars.


Life style and risk factors


A diet that is heavy in fats and sugary food and drink, combined with largely sedentary “activities” like watching TV and playing video games will lead many children to obesity. During the pandemic years (2019-2022) the percentage of American children who are obese rose from 19 percent to 22 percent, the greatest percentage increase since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started keeping track of these data in 1970.


There are factors, other than poor diet and lack of exercise, that contribute to childhood obesity. Children who come from a family of overweight people are more likely to put on excess pounds. Additionally, stress often leads to overeating. Personal stress, like an obsessive need to please people; parental stress, like demanding outstanding performance in academic subjects or sports; or familial stress, like intense competition with siblings may lead to overeating and other unhealthy tendencies.


Moderation seems to be key to successful child-rearing. Parents need to keep a balance in their child’s experiences, just as they should provide a healthy and balanced diet. Parents can encourage participation in sports without demanding all-star performance; they can introduce their children to a musical instrument without expecting virtuosity; they can engage their children in scholastic activity by demonstrating the value of life-long learning themselves.


Complications of obesity


Childhood obesity can lead to juvenile Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin. Insulin controls blood glucose (sugar) levels for good health.


The poor diet of obese children leads to high levels of cholesterol, which in turn can lead to the build-up of plaque in the arteries. High cholesterol is often paired with high blood pressure. As a child ages, the plaque causes the arteries to narrow and “harden.” When this occurs, the chances of heart attack or stroke increase, often dramatically.


The sheer weight of obesity also puts stress on hips and knees, but virtually all joints are affected to various extents. Minimally, this causes pain, but it can ultimately lead to disability. Joint pain can discourage children from healthy play and exercise. Children who are overweight and sedentary may experience breathing problems and are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea, a potentially serious ailment.


Body Mass Index


Although there are other factors to be considered, the most common indication of obesity is the ratio of body weight to height, which is called one’s body mass index. (An Olympic gymnast who is 15 pounds “overweight” may not be obese because that extra weight is muscle. But, a largely sedentary child who is 15 pounds overweight may be obese).


To determine if your children are overweight or obese, you can compute their body mass indices by using the calculator app on your phone. But first, measure them to find their height and use an accurate scale to find their weight. Let’s say that one of your children is 4’3.” Convert that to inches by multiplying 4 times 12 and adding the 3. This will give your child’s height as 51 inches. Now, let’s say that child weighs 115 pounds. The use of the following formula will show the child’s BMI (body mass index).


BMI is determined by multiplying weight by 703 and then dividing by height squared. Height squared can be entered into your calculator app simply by dividing by height twice.


Note, I rounded numbers to simplify the example.


Example:


  • 115 x 703 = 80845


  • ÷ 51 = 1585 (rounded down)


  • ÷ 51 = 31.1 (rounded up)


Example:


  • 115 x 703 = 80845


  • ÷ 51 = 1585 (rounded down)


  • ÷ 51 = 31.1 (rounded up)


So, this child’s BMI is 31.1, what does that mean?


  • BMI between 19 and 24.9 is “normal.”


  • BMI between 25 and 29.9 is overweight.


  • BMI between 30 and 34.9 is obese.


  • BMI over 35.0 is morbidly obese.


  • BMI between 19 and 24.9 is “normal.”


  • BMI between 25 and 29.9 is overweight.


  • BMI between 30 and 34.9 is obese.


  • BMI over 35.0 is morbidly obese.


You don’t have to do the rounding of numbers on your calculator.


Now, what do we do with that pillowcase full of fats and sugars?


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.