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Illinois ranks high for child obesity

by Gabrielle M. Blue
May 13, 2010

American kids are fat. Illinois kids are fatter.

The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity reported the stark fact on Tuesday that one in five American children is overweight. Prompted by First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, the task force released a 124-page report, including 70 recommendations to officials in government and the private sector that would help lower the nation’s childhood obesity rate.  

In Illinois, roughly one in three children is overweight or obese, which ranks 10th-highest for youth ages 10-17 in the country, according to the advocacy organization Trust for America’s Health.

“It’s a multi-faceted and multi-causal issue,” said Sarah Welch of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. “It just depends on how committed everyone is in getting everyone on board. . . . [The task force recommendations] are really what’s needed to make state-wide changes.”

According to the Chicago consortium, the obesity rate for the city’s  children ages 3-7 is 22 percent, more than twice as high as the national average. For Chicago children ages 6-11, the obesity rate is 28 percent, one and a half times as high as the nation’s average. 

The Illinois Department of Public Health adopted the CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) program in 2004 to promote healthy eating and physical activity among elementary school children.  A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said Thursday that a total of 152 schools have been funded by the program, and that the newly released recommendations can also help reduce child obesity rates in the state. 

“Having a national campaign is necessary and helps build support and momentum,” Welch said. “If [these recommendations] can be implemented, they will definitely have an impact.”

The task force’s report included research data which found that obesity can originate in the womb.   

“[A] mothers’ pre-conception weight and weight gain during pregnancy are two of the most important prenatal determinants of childhood obesity,” the report read.  “In a study of low-income children, there was an association between maternal BMI (Body Mass Index) in the first trimester and the probability of being overweight at 2, 3 and 4 years of age.” 

Catherine Cram, an exercise physiologist who specializes in prenatal and postpartum fitness, said it’s important for women to exercise during pregnancy and establish healthy eating habits to reduce the obesity risks for their child. 

“Being obese as a mother, the baby is essentially getting excess glucose nutrients and is becoming over-fat in utero, and that sets the stage metabolically in many ways,” said Cram, of Comprehensive Fitness Consulting, LLC. “It sets the stage as far as the fat cell numbers.” 

The report also revealed that children who are breast-fed are 22 percent less likely to become obese. Despite the health benefits, there is still a disparity between the number of black mothers who breast-feed and those in other racial groups. 

Other recommendations called for: 

  • The implementation of standard nutrition labels on the front of packages.
  • Restaurants to consider smaller portion sizes and make healthy options a default. 
  • Schools to upgrade cafeteria equipment to support healthier food options (salad bars instead of deep fryers). 
  • Incentives to attract supermarkets to underserved rural and urban areas.