As more and more adults in America gain weight, their kids are getting bigger, too. Dr. Lia Nightingale, a professor of nutrition at Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, suggests some children are fat because their mothers don’t eat right while they’re pregnant.
"Over-nutrition and under-nutrition both lead to childhood obesity," she says. For example, Nightingale says pregnant mothers who smoke are often undernourished. "They will have kids that are small for gestational age, but they actually develop faster. They put down more fat mass as soon as they’re born versus kids that are appropriate for gestational age," Nightingale says, "and then kids that have maternal overfeeding — if mothers are consuming too much, they can actually put down excess fat into their kid…and then once they are born, they are going to be large for gestational age and they have much higher incidence of childhood obesity."
The old adage that it’s just "baby fat" that will melt away seems to be disproven by the data. "Seventy percent of kids that are obese stay obese as adults," Nightingale says. Morgan Spurlock, the director of the film "Super Size Me," spoke recently at a Palmer College conference on obesity. One mother in the audience asked him how to respond to family and friends who criticize her for not letting her five-month-old eat any fast food.
"The biggest thing you can do as a parent is set an example for them in the house. You know, like, we sit down and we eat dinner as a family…every night…even at that young age so that he can see that it’s important," he says. "…I still love a pizza, love a burger, I still love that stuff, (but) I don’t eat it in front of him…If you just keep him away from it, up until he’s like two or three, it won’t even become part of his palate. It won’t be something that he craves because as your child’s palate is developing, it’s like those first three years are really important."
Bonnie Moller, a registered dietician who works with kids in a Head Start program in the Quad Cities, says there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of obese preschoolers in the program. In 1999, about two percent of the kids in her Head Start classes were obese. Today, it’s nearly 15 percent.
"This is a terrible change," she says. Most of the kids enrolled in Head Start are served two, balanced meals a day — every weekday. That leaves Moller wondering what the kids eat when they’re not at Head Start.
"Are they eating throughout the rest of the time at home on their own? Is no meal prepared?" she asks. "Are they just grazing continually while they’re at home and watching TV and playing video games?" Moller says the experts all agree that the best way to prevent childhood obesity is for both parents and kids to eat smaller portions and best more exercise.
According to the latest statistics from the Iowa Department of Health, just over 18 percent of Iowa kids enrolled in third, fourth and fifth grade in the fall of 2005 were overweight. In 2006, one-point-four million Iowa adults were considered overweight or obese.