Bearing the heavy burden of obesity

Survey shows Solano County children more out of shape than Bay Area counterparts

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

FAIRFIELD - Aaron Johnson is a 12-year-old boy who has been overweight for four years. He's been called "stupid," "fat boy" and "bully" by his peers throughout the years and says it's something he has learned to ignore.

Johnson, a seventh-grader in Fairfield, stands at 5-feet-8-inches tall and weighs more than 245 pounds. He started gaining weight just four years ago.

His mother, Juanita Johnson, said the issue of heaviness runs in the family but not to the extent of Aaron's weight.

She and her husband have tried and tried to help their son lose weight, she said, but to no avail. A five-week trip to a weight camp last year, costing the family more than $10,000, sparked a loss of 15 pounds for the youth. One year later, however, he regained the weight, adding an additional 30 pounds to his frame.

"I feel horrible. I feel badly that he's gotten that big," she said. "We tried what the doctor said of diet and exercise, but we just don't know what it is (that causes the weight gain)."

Aaron Johnson isn't alone. In a recent study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 14.2 percent of adolescents in California are overweight or obese, an increase since 2003 when it was 12.4 percent.
In Solano County, however, the rate of overweight children and youth is among the highest in the Bay Area. The 2003 Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance data for children and youth ages 5 to 20 shows that 24 percent are overweight and 18.2 percent are at risk of being overweight.

"This trend continues to get worse," said Dr. Ronald Chapman, Solano County health officer and deputy director for Health and Social Services. "Every year we're seeing higher rates of adolescents, children and adult obesity."

The average 10-year-old boy is 11 pounds heavier than a generation ago, Chapman added, with only 20 percent of children and adolescents passing the county Fitnessgram, a health-related physical fitness assessment administered to fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders.

And obesity, with annual medical expenditures reaching $7.7 billion in California, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is what leads to diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.

"From watching four hours a day of TV to a lack of physical exercise, the reasons for obesity are multiple," Chapman said. "And we're heading in the wrong direction."


Aaron Johnson doesn't play baseball anymore.

The politics of the local team coupled with a lack of confidence deterred him from ever signing up again.

"It became an issue and he didn't want to play anymore," Juanita Johnson said of her son. "Even though he can hit that ball over the fence, he doesn't want to play because he knows he's a slow runner and he doesn't want to hear comments from his teammates."

Instead, Aaron will spend his weekends seated before a television screen playing electronic games and has limited, if any active playing time. It is a trend that seems to be gaining momentum.

This year alone, retailers have noticed a surge of sales in game consoles and electronics, with sales of Nintendo and PlayStation - popular among teenagers - on the rise, according to the National Retail Federation.

Could this be a contributor to weight gain?

Since 1960, the percentage of overweight children has quadrupled, according to the Food and Drug Administration, and the reasons vary.

"We're not promoting a healthy lifestyle," said Kathy DeMaggio, supervising public health nutritionist to the Children and Weight Coalition. "We are replacing organized meals with snacks and the family is not having their meals together. We can't minimize the issue."

Parents are opting to let children select their dinner choices due to a fear of not making them happy, DeMaggio said, and this is a big mistake.

"It's not our job to make them happy but rather to be self-confident and healthy," she said. "It's the parent's choice for meals and they have to be in charge."

Walking to school has also become an obsolete as well, said Dr. Brigitte Randle, pediatrician at Sutter Regional Medical Center in Vacaville. More parents choose to drive their children instead.

"I think we're a bit more worried about children getting kidnapped and keeping them closer," Randle said, who sees an upward trend of overweight adolescents. "Couple that with the accessibility of food at all times."

According to the Children and Weight Coalition, children are snacking more on high fat and high sugar foods; are eating fewer fruits and vegetable; drinking less milk; and consuming larger portions of food.

Granted, a few chain restaurants are removing artery-clogging trans fat from their kitchens, including Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy's and, by 2008, all eateries in New York City. But is it a quick fix? DeMaggio says yes.

"Americans believe 'remove trans fat and solve.' We like the simple sound bite, that trans fat is bad for cardiac disease," she said. "But it's not the solution to what we've done in our society. We need to promote a healthy lifestyle."

Now what?

The Children and Weight Coalition provides education for parents and health professionals on prevention and treatment. They suggest providing regular meals and snacks; encouraging children to have 60 minutes of physical activity and active play time every day; and limiting fast foods and dining out to once per week, for example.

Solano County Health and Social Services, along with the Solano Coalition for Better Health, are also looking at ways of creating communities with a plethora of activities for children.

"We're really starting to focus on community design and a redevelopment that encourage access to healthy foods," Chapman said. "And in neighborhoods that have blocked-up areas, create designs that encourage people to use bikes or walk."

But for parents like Juanita Johnson, the problem remains, at least for now.

"I fear people look at Aaron and blame us for him being as big as he is, but we try, he tries," Juanita Johnson said. "Every day is a struggle and it's hard. He doesn't even go out to play with the boys in our court because he's afraid he will be ridiculed. But we try."

Obesity by the numbers

4: Factor by which the number of obese U.S. children has increased since 1960

11: Number of pounds increase in weight of average 10-year-old boy in last generation

14.2: Percentage of California adolescents who are obese

24: Percentage of Solano County teens who were overweight in 2003

60: Number of minutes per day of physical activity and play time suggested for children by the Children and Weight Coalition

$7.7 billion: Amount spent annually in California on medical expenditures for obesity