- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006

Baby fat may be cute, but beware of the kiddie potbelly.

The waistlines of American youth have increased, with more than 65 percent more boys and almost 70 percent more girls having big waistlines in 2004 compared with 1988, according to pediatricians from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York.

A juvenile gut has worrisome implications. That belly is a “better predictor of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes risk than the more commonly used body mass index,” the researchers concluded after analyzing statistics for children 2 to 19 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

“These increases only grow more alarming as you tease out specific age groups over longer periods of time,” said co-author Dr. Stephen Cook of the Rochester medical school.

The study published in the journal Pediatrics found that the largest increase in belly fat among males occurred among younger children — the prevalence of obesity rising by 84 percent among 2- to 5-year-olds. Among females, the biggest increase was among those who would welcome it least — a big tummy was found in 126 percent more 18- to 19-year-olds in 2004 than in 1988.

As a whole, 10.5 percent of the 1988 girls and boys had a waist size in the 90th percentile or higher for their age. By 2004, 17.4 percent of boys and 17.8 percent of girls had waists of that size or greater — increases of about 65 percent and 69 percent.

Some recent research put the onus on boys alone. Young males with “trunk fat are more likely to have high blood pressure than their slimmer counterparts,” according to a study last year of 920 children by the Obesity Research Center of St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York.

American children are not the only youngsters with girth issues, however. Surveys in Spain and Britain have also revealed “substantially increasing trends” in the waist circumference of children. If present trends continue, almost half of the children in North and South America and 38 percent of European children will be overweight by 2010, according to the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity.

Dr. Cook cited the usual array of causes for big-bellied American youth — including big portions and a sedentary lifestyle. Potential ill effects are often reversible with weight loss and habit changes, he said.

“Kids, teens and adults who have early stages of atherosclerosis in their arteries can have a healthy cardiovascular system again,” Dr. Cook said.

Some communities are taking a proactive approach. The University of Cincinnati and one Kentucky school district began a dietary “intervention program” earlier this year, which reinforces healthy eating habits among elementary-school students. Even a fast-food giant has joined: McDonald’s created its own center for type 2 diabetes and childhood obesity in September, partnering with Scripps Research Institute and providing an initial $2 million grant.

Some absolve chubby children of their plight, however.

“The concept of personal responsibility is not tenable in children. No child chooses to be obese,” said Dr. Robert Lustig, a University of Florida pediatrician who blames the phenomenon of fat children on the “toxic environment” of food manufacturing and the high-calorie, low-fiber Western diet.

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