FiveCAP Head Start participating in U-M obesity study

MANISTEE — Over the past three decades, obesity in the U.S. has risen drastically. The Center for Disease Control reports that more than one-third of American adults are obese. What many people don’t realize, however, is young children are suffering from obesity at alarming rates, too.

According to the CDC, 17 percent of children are obese. There seems to be a socioeconomic connection with weight issues as low-income children are disproportionately affected. One of every three children living in poverty will be obese or overweight before their fifth birthday.

Along with suffering the external physical challenges that result from obesity, children are also turning up with health challenges that typically only plague adults. Children are now commonly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, high cholesterol and high blood pressure because of their weight.

The Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health is currently conducting a study that will analyze the health status of children in the Head Start program, which serves families whose income falls within the federal poverty level. FiveCAP Head Start has accepted the university’s invitation to participate by offering data from the eight centers in its four-county service area that includes Mason, Manistee, Lake and Newaygo counties.

The goal of the study is to identify practices and environments in the Head Start centers that affect children’s eating and gross-motor activities and then use the analysis to provide information on changes that could be implemented to prevent obesity in low-income children.

The agency is currently completing the Survey of Healthy Activity and Eating Practices and Environments (SHAPES) and providing data on the heights and weights of children in the program over the course of a four-year period.

Micki Slocum, health and safety coordinator at FiveCAP Head Start, said that for the 2011-12 school year 15 percent of the 439 children the agency served were identified as at-risk for childhood obesity.

“We’re around what the national average is program-wide,” Slocum said, adding that several practices have been implemented in the last several years to help improve the overall health of the students. “Our model, I think, is similar to what will be recommended when the study is complete.”

For example, FiveCAP Head Start already has in place a no-sugar policy, offers multiple servings of fruits and vegetables each day and only provides low-fat or skim milk to the children. All eight centers offer full-day preschool, so the students are receiving breakfast, lunch and a snack while they are at school. These meals all adhere to the U.S. Department of Agriculture standards and account for two-thirds of the recommended nutrient a child should receive each day.

Portion control in school meals has become a hot-button issue in the last year since new standards have been adopted by the USDA. This, Slocum added, can be an especially difficult thing for low-income children.

“So many of these children are coming to school hungry,” she said. “They just demolish the recommended servings of things and still feel hungry because they’re not getting enough to eat at home.”

The study also evaluates the amount of physical activity the students are getting at each center. Slocum said there are playgrounds onsite at all eight of the FiveCAP Head Start centers and children get at least an hour of outdoor play and large motor play each day, if not more.

“So many schools are getting rid of physical education and recess,” she said. “This is such an important component of battling childhood obesity, though. Getting children moving not only helps them stay fit, it’s been proven to help them learn, too.”

All of the information FiveCAP Head Start is providing to the University of Michigan will be anonymous and summaries about specific centers will only be shared with the agency that operates it. All information that is made public through the study will be broad-based and provide generalizations of all the programs that participated.

The university anticipates the study will take about a year to compile and is looking to provide information on how Head Start programs can further work to combat obesity in preschool-aged low-income children.

 

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