The Steep Cost of Cheap Food

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MADISON, Wis. – When diabetes educator Eva Marie Vivian sees overweight minority children, she sees a generational tragedy unfolding.

Type 2 diabetes was virtually unheard of in children a generation ago, but now as many as 3,700 young people were newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in a single year — a diagnosis much more common among Native American, Hispanic or African American children. At current rates, it is estimated that one in three children born in the year 2000 will eventually develop diabetes. And it’s not just the diabetes—cardiovascular disease, kidney and eye damage, and other complications can follow uncontrolled diabetes.

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“A 12-year-old with Type 2 diabetes may develop coronary artery disease by age 35,’’ said Vivian, associate clinical professor in the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy. “We’re talking about a generation of children that might not outlive their parents.”

Vivian says that some heavily Hispanic zip codes in Los Angeles have rates of childhood obesity approaching 90 percent. And her recent research in Madison, Wis., shows that things aren’t much better in the Midwest. She recently screened 86 children (63 percent African-American, 34 percent Latino, 3 percent white) in community settings such as churches and food pantries. She found that 54 percent were overweight or obese, conditions that can set them up for developing Type 2 diabetes, in which the body becomes resistant to insulin.

“While more than half of the children were overweight, it’s interesting that only 10 percent of parents reported that they thought their children were overweight,’ Vivian said. “It may be because many of the parents are overweight themselves.”

So, is this merely a case of children inheriting bad genes? No.
“Genes may load the gun, but your environment and lifestyle pull the trigger,’’ Vivian said.

As part of her screening, she queried parents about the factors causing children to gain weight. What she learned is startling:

• About 31 percent of the children consume fast food more than twice a week
• 86 percent watch more than two hours of television.
• Among the obese and overweight children, television watching was more than three hours a day.
• The parents themselves reported being too busy with work to prepare home-cooked meals.

Vivian’s research is aimed at identifying factors that people can change to lose weight and reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Her work is funded by the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (ICTR), part of a national effort to get medical research more quickly from the laboratories into the community.

She has just received a second grant to create a community-based intervention program that will go into the neighborhood centers with programs for children and parents. While the children would be in exercise classes led by trained instructors from the UW School of Kinesiology and formerly overweight teenagers who have successfully changed their own lifestyles, parents would be learning about healthy shopping, cooking and family lifestyle changes.

“One problem is that some parents also eat unhealthy foods, and the children follow their parents,’’ Vivian said. “The good news is that when you ask adults to change their lifestyle, they’re more likely to be receptive if it involves helping their children.”


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