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The Skinny on Childhood Obesity

Local groups are teaming up to help overweight children slim down

Jan. 14, 2009
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We hear it all the time, especially around the start of each new year: Many Americans are fat. On average, we weigh more—and eat more— than people in most other countries, as well as our parents and grandparents did. Plus, the problem is starting so early that we’re now seeing some of the most severe weight problems— namely obesity—among children and teens.

What’s more, the problem of childhood obesity is a growing one. Based on body mass index (BMI) calculations, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III estimates that 20% of children in North America are obese. It’s a big local problem, too, one that’s so visible it’s caught the attention of the Medical College of Wisconsin, which has been conducting research on the genetics of obesity since 1995.

After recruiting more than 4,000 study participants through the Milwaukee-based nonprofit weight-loss organization TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), the researchers, currently led by Dr. Ahmed Kissebah of the Medical College, were able to search for genes they suspected play a large part in our country’s weight problems.

“We were thinking there were going to be one or two major genes controlling everything but discovered instead that there’s a mafia of genes that form networks, groups of genes all working together, that are major players in obesity,” said Roland James, scientific director for the TOPS Center for Obesity and Metabolic Research, which helps coordinate the study at the Medical College.

Now the researchers want to understand which genes are involved in these “fat mafias.” Until 2012, they’ll be studying about 400 children from local overweight families to see which genes lead to weight problems in adulthood and whether these genes are activated during puberty.

The researchers aren’t just swooping in and collecting data about these kids: They’re also helping them—and their families— develop healthier habits in collaboration with TOPS.

According to Ruth Gielow, TOPS’s regional director, the 60-year-old nonprofit provides the foundation many people need to lose weight and, more importantly, get healthy. “When it comes to losing weight, some people have a lot of support at home, but many don’t. When I first walked into a TOPS meeting, I could feel the warmth and caring of the people there, and it was what really inspired me to do something for my health,” she said.

Especially here in the Milwaukee area, TOPS members are known for going above and beyond the call of duty, calling one another at night to check in on nutrition goals and over the lunch hour to go for walks. “It’s not a place where you just come in, step on the scale and leave,” Gielow said. “It’s a place to make the kind of friends every person should have.”

Mobilizing Friends

The Medical College is trying to mobilize some of this friend-making power for the kids it’s studying, too. One of the biggest barriers to weight loss for obese kids is anxiety about making friends. Most kids with weight problems face ridicule from their peers and embarrassment when they can’t fit into the clothes they want to wear. Issues such as these can quickly snowball into poor self-image and a vicious cycle of stress and depression, problems that kids often address by overeating and by losing themselves in television programs and computer games.

These are the very activities that keep kids from losing weight, especially when they become habits. Last month, the researchers teamed up with TOPS to hold a party for their new research subjects and their friends at the Country Springs Hotel’s water park. TOPS welcomes kids and teens into their weight-loss support groups and will also form groups just for younger folks if people in the community indicate an interest, Gielow said. However, researchers and weightloss experts agree that the most important source of support is the kids’ families.

“Parents have to be involved because they’re the ones who take them to all of those activities— swimming lessons, soccer games, dance lessons, all those things that keep kids active,” Gielow said. “They also make their meals and teach them how to eat properly, both what they tell their kids and what they show them through examples. It’s those examples that really matter.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


What Causes Obesity?

Obesity’s not something that has one simple “cause.” It’s influenced by a number of factors, from the foods you eat to the type and amount of exercise you do to your family’s genetic makeup. Beyond food, fitness and your genes, here are a few of the major culprits in weight gain and loss:

  • Stress: People who are chronically stressed out—including kids—tend to secrete more of a hormone called cortisol, which encourages abdominal fat to build up. Chronic stress is also associated with insulin resistance and “emotional eating”—in other words, snacking when not hungry to deal with anxiety.
  • Sleep: The research is pretty clear: Kids and adults who sleep more tend to weigh less. Those who sleep less than seven hours per night tend to be the heaviest, as do those who wake up during the middle of the night.
  • Safety: According to a recent article in Psychology Today, people who perceive their neighborhoods as dangerous are 1.5 times more likely than average to be overweight, most likely because they’re nervous about spending much time outside.
  • Socioeconomic status: Researchers at Oklahoma State University recently found—as many studies before them have— that there’s a strong link between poverty and obesity. People who have lots of life stressors, particularly worries about making ends meet, are less likely to focus on fitness and nutrition goals if they don’t get much support from their community.

Weight-control Tips

The keys to losing weight are, for the most part, similar whether you’re a kid or an adult. Nearly everyone knows that exercising regularly and limiting calories and fat can go a long way. However, there are tons of other simple tricks you can use to eat and exercise more effectively. Here are a few tips you may not have heard yet, culled from Medical College researchers, TOPS Regional Director Ruth Gielow and the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR):

  • Eat breakfast every day. Research has shown that people who do this—especially kids—feel fuller and eat less throughout the day.
  • Ditch the sweets. Putting healthy foods like apples, carrots, yogurt or even a relish tray at eye level in the fridge and stowing sweets in the produce bin helps you snack smarter.
  • Add small bursts of exercise to your routine. Studies have shown that the pounds start to fall off when people increase their exercise levels to a total of 60 minutes per day. It may not seem that helpful, but adding a few sets of jumping jacks during TV commercials or taking a 10-minute walk after each meal can go a long way toward weight-loss and fitness goals.
  • Buddy up. You’re less likely to replace a workout with a nap or a snack if you’ve promised one or two other people you’ll do it with them.
  • Have a fast-food strategy. Prepare at least a few meals per week at home, which tends to curb calories and offers a great opportunity to get kids interested in nutrition. When you’re on the go, read the nutritional information at fast-food restaurants and try to choose high-protein items and limit starchy and sugary add-ons like french fries and ice cream.
  • Turn off the TV. Limit sedentary activities such as TV-watching and Internet surfing. Whip out Wii Fit or Dance Dance Revolution, go ice skating or sledding, or snowshoe down a local trail. It’ll hardly feel like exercise.

Weight-loss Resources

The National Weight Control Registry: 1-800-606-NWCR, www.nwcr.ws

TOPS: 414-482-4620, www.tops.org

Medical College of Wisconsin’s Metabolic Syndrome Clinic: 414-805-6242, www.mcw.edu/endocrinology/centers/MetabolicCenter.htm



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