Vermont families talk about the challenges they face ensuring kids eat healthy April Barton, Burlington Free Press
Vermont is often thought of as one of the healthiest states, however, Vermont children were ranked average in a recent nationwide obesity study.
Vermont children rank as the 20th most obese, while Vermont adults rank 43rd, according to the first-ever State of Childhood Obesity: Helping All Children Grow Up Healthy report released in October from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
What is driving the disparity in the numbers?
Are Vermont kids less healthy than adults? Yes and no.
In the report, Vermont’s childhood obesity rate is listed at 15.1%, very close to the national average of 15.3%. The adult obesity rate is listed at 27.5%, the 8th lowest adult obesity rate in the nation. But Paul Meddaugh, a public health analyst at the Vermont Department of Health, suggests it is difficult to compare the adult rankings with the child rankings because of the nature of the data collection.
“There’s four separate rankings within the state of obesity report and each one uses very different data that was collected very differently,” he said. “So, these ranking systems really compel you to look at them side by side but you can’t really interpret them that way because they’re collected so differently.”
One of the limitations is that much of the data is based on patient or parental recall of encounters with their doctor, including information about their height and weight at the time and whether the doctor said they had hypertension or obesity.
That is not to suggest the numbers are not helpful. What is clear is obesity is on the rise, both in adults and children. Vermont youth, in particular, need the support of adults to bring the numbers down.
How are Vermont families dealing with challenges of keeping kids healthy?
Local families face an everyday struggle with time and healthy eating battling it out.
Vegetables are a point of contention for Michelle Tomasi of Milton. “Kids are tough,” Tomasi said. “I think it’s like constantly introducing vegetables and doing it continuously. You can’t just give up.”
For Ashley Klein of Mallets Bay, the challenges are a busy lifestyle: “It’s the scheduling, all the afterschool scheduling that makes it really challenging to get everyone to sit down at the same time for a meal.”
Mike Hart of Jeffersonville, a father of five, also struggles with planning meals around his kids’ activities.
“It’s extremely difficult to do everything, coordinate meals around soccer, gymnastics, basketball, skiing, everything that they do,” he said, “or make sure they have nutritious snacks and not just filling up on sugar all day, everyday.”
Sue Kamp, obesity program lead with the Vermont Department of Health, says obesity started trending upward in the 1960s when people became more sedentary and food policy started supporting less healthy foods which were often the cheapest.
“If you are a family that is struggling to make ends meet, and/or a family that is very fast-paced… convenience foods are probably a simpler way to feed your family,” Kamp said. “But we also know those convenience foods tend to be less healthy, higher fat, higher sodium, higher sugars.”
She said it is also helpful to know 3-4-50. Three behaviors (poor diet, lack of exercise and tobacco use) cause four chronic diseases (cancer, diabetes, heart disease and lung disease). Those four diseases account for 57% of deaths in our state. Therefore, half of the deaths in Vermont may be prevented by adopting healthy behaviors.
What strides are being made to make the next generation healthier than the one before?
There is some good news for Vermont children which the numbers do not reflect.
Meddaugh sees progress, “A little context to the obesity numbers might help if we look at behavior information. We have the rates of physical activity, fruits and vegetable consumption,” he said. “That provides a little context to the story and a little hope to what seems like a dispairing situation.”
According to Kamp, Vermont schools have adopted several recent policies to address obesity issues. The school lunch program changed a few years ago to include less sodium, more whole grains and more fruits and vegetables. The Agency of Education requires schools to provide 30 minutes of exercise a day in addition to the physical education class. And, around 80% of Vermont schools participate in the Farm to School program which allows students to help grow or prep their own food or visit the farm which supplies their cafeteria.
Vegetable consumption in high schoolers is up, says Meddaugh, and that’s proof that behaviors can change. He said the school health profiles which are run every other year in Vermont show physical activity in schools and produce consumption have increased.
“Vermont is very positive in those areas,” Meddaugh said. “The stage is set for, hopefully, seeing obesity numbers go down.”
The families we talked to said what works for them is to meal plan and prep ahead.
“I try to do a lot of my prep beforehand and give them healthy snacks on the way to their activity,” Klein said. Hart said his wife does a great job planning out their meals.
Tomasi had some practical advice. “It can be so simple — steamed veggies, chicken in the oven, quinoa on the pot, I mean, fifteen minutes.” She said she puts a casserole together before soccer practice and puts foil over it to keep it warm. “By the time we come back, everything’s warm still, it’s healthy, it’s good, we’re ready to eat.”
Involving kids in the process, Kamp said, can have long-lasting health benefits as well. She suggested cooking with kids; gardening with them if you have a garden; going with them to the food bank, grocery store or farmer’s market; and teaching them the names of produce to take away some of the mystique.
By creating healthy habits early, these kids may yet buck the 60-year obesity trend.
Contact April Barton, firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-338-0642.
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