State's Childhood Obesity Numbers Continue to Raise Concerns

M. Alex Geertsma, Chairman of Pediatrics at St. Mary's Hospital in Waterbury and director of the Children's Health Center, says the road to childhood obesity is paved in tasty treats that are attracting children’s palates unnecessarily – and beginning very early in life. “Commercialism is driving change in how we feed our infants,” Geertsma recently told a group of advocates at a Capitol forum on childhood obesity.  Geertsma, who has practiced pediatrics in Connecticut for three decades, is a member of the Connecticut Commission on Children.

After being on a liquid diet for the first six months of life, they begin to taste discriminate, or recognize certain foods as tasty or disgusting. They begin to want something “novel” whether it is extremely sweet or really salty.  Food manufacturers take full advantage, producing choices with hefty salt content and other ingredients that begin to push the scales upward.

The increase in body fat has been occurring much earlier than seven to eight years of age in children who eventually become long-term obese. This pattern is worse in African-American and Latino children, Geertsma said.

A recently released report projects that if obesity rates continue on current trajectories, 46.5 percent of adults in Connecticut will be obese by 2030.  The rate in 2011 was 24.5 percent.  Commissioned by The Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the “F as in Fat Report” projects that nationally, 13 states could have adult obesity rates above 60 percent by 2030.

Currently Connecticut is not among the worst offenders, ranking among the states with the relatively lowest adult and childhood obesity rates (#40 in childhood obesity; #49 in adult obesity).

A report last year by the Connecticut Department of Public Health, “Overweight and Obesity Among Kindergarten and Third Grade Children in Connecticut,” found that the prevalence of obesity was significantly higher in grade 3 children than in kindergarten children. Third grade girls were more likely to be obese when compared to kindergarten girls.  Similarly, third grade boys were more likely to be obese when compared to kindergarten boys.

Almost one third (32%) of all the students in the sample were either overweight or obese. The prevalence was similar when compared by sex. Third-graders (33.6%) were more likely to be either overweight or obese than children in Kindergarten (29.8%), but the difference was not statistically significant. However, the non-Hispanic Black (40.8%) and Hispanic (43.3%) children in the sample were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than non-Hispanic White (26.8%) children.

Obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, after smoking, according to the Connecticut Public Health Department.  If a child is overweight before age 8, obesity in adulthood is likely to be more severe, statistics by the American Academy of Pediatrics have noted.

The Connecticut Coalition Against Childhood Obesity, a coalition of more than 30 health advocacy organizations across the state which conducted the hearing, is encouraging discussion of ways to overcome the obesity epidemic, which they say is contributing to the academic achievement gap.