When she was a toddler, getting Agusta Gudmundsdottir to eat was never a challenge. For breakfast, she'd eagerly down a full bowl of sweetened cereal with milk and a glass of apple juice. Then it was off to the daycare center, not far from her Miami home.
Lunch, prepared by Mom, was usually a butter sandwich and a cookie, followed by more cookies during midafternoon snack. Once home, she'd munch on a slice of buttered bread before dinner, which was often pasta.
And dessert? "Another cookie," says her father, Gudmundur Palmason, "since she wouldn't stop begging until we gave her one."
By age 4, Agusta weighed 68 pounds (33 more than the average for her age) and stood 45 inches tall (a few inches above average). But the sugary cereal, cookies, and buttered bread weren't the only things responsible for her chubby cheeks and round tummy: At an age when many kids can't seem to sit still, Agusta spent most of her free time in front of the television.
It became clear that her extra weight was no longer baby fat. "Since we're with her every day, we didn't really see how much weight she'd gained," says Palmason. "It was my mother—who hadn't seen Agusta in five months—who made us realize that she was way too heavy."
Agusta's not alone. Childhood obesity is a significant and growing problem in this country. Between 1980 and 1994, the number of obese children in the U.S. almost doubled, with nearly 14 percent of all children ages 6 to 11 now considered overweight. There's also been a notable jump in overweight 4- and 5-year-old girls, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Many experts say these figures are actually low, because they only include children whose body mass index (BMI)—defined as how much space a person's body takes up—is in the 95th percentile (meaning that, like Agusta, their body mass is greater than that of 95 percent of their peers). By including children whose BMI is in the 85th percentile—still too heavy, according to many experts—the number of overweight children jumps to 22 percent, or almost one in four.
"Parents need to be aware of how serious a problem this is," says Marc Jacobson, M.D., director of the pediatric weight management clinic at Schneider Children's Hospital, in New Hyde Park, NY. Overweight children are at a slight but increased risk of many immediate health disorders, including kidney disease, hip and ankle problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, and inflammation of the pancreas.
Obese children are nearly twice as likely to grow up to be obese adults. And a child who keeps the weight on through adolescence and into adulthood has a good chance of developing serious medical problems, according to Gerald Berenson, M.D., professor of medicine and pediatrics at Tulane University Medical School and a lead researcher of one of the longest-running studies on childhood obesity and heart disease. "By the time they're teens, many have the beginnings of heart disease or diabetes," he says. Early puberty—common among both overweight boys and girls—has been linked to breast cancer in women later in life. And cancer of the ovaries, uterus, colon, rectum and prostate are also more common in obese adults.
Studies also show that overweight kids ages 6 and older tend to have fewer friends, are less involved with extracurricular activities, are more depressed, and have lower self-esteem than their thinner peers.
Laura Muha writes frequently about health and nutrition.