To many people, San Diego conjures up images of tanned, healthy beachgoers, but in reality more than half of the County’s adults are overweight, according to San Diego’s 2012 CDC Community Profile.
Further, roughly 30 percent of San Diego children in grades five, seven and nine are overweight or obese.
With these numbers surpassing national averages, programs for children as young as 2-years-old are being integrated in preschools, after-school care and recreation facilities around San Diego.
Overweight children are 10 times more likely to become overweight adults, yet public school systems continue to cut back on physical eduction. As of 2011, 48 to 68 percent of students nationwide did not take physical education classes in an average week.
According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, 44 percent of schools in the US have made significant cuts in time for physical education and recess since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. The report also added that from 2001 to 2006, the number of days students were required to take P.E. dramatically declined.
To address the growing problem, San Diego County began its Childhood Obesity Initiative in 2006 with the mission of “reducing and preventing childhood obesity through policy, systems, and environmental change.”
The initiative’s Action Plan targets the “most influential” domains in developing a healthy environment:
“The goal is to stop the problem before it begins–to invoke change from the ground up,” said Senior Project Manager of the initiative, Melanie Briones. “We try to show people the importance of health policy so kids don’t need to ‘have better habits’ because they’ve already been building good habits.”
Briones says the plan’s success is founded by its research-driven approach to promoting good health and essential life skills in today’s youth that counter the trends of childhood obesity in the US.
According to a Community Health Statistics brief, 41 percent of San Diego children ages 5 to 11 are physically active less than three days a week, 10 percent of whom reported zero activity.
A youth-based sports fitness program for preschoolers called Amazing Athletes is one of several efforts in San Diego combating this stagnant lifestyle. Spokeswoman for the preschool program Mariko Lamb says it is important to realize how closely related physical fitness is to childhood development.
“A child’s risk for a lifetime of obesity is typically established by the tender young age of five,” Lamb said. “By reaching children early through enrichment programs like ours, we’re able to show kids that physical activity is fun and teach gross motor skill development, healthy habits, promote skills like confidence, teamwork, goal-setting and social skills, and so much more.”
VIDEO: Amazing Athletes teaches sports and good nutrition to preschoolers.
Professor of Public Health John Elder says programs like these are promoting good ideas, but he blames schools for not providing proper physical education and nutrition.
“Kids are in the cafeteria and they go straight for the entree. They go straight for the piece of pizza and the healthy options are pushed to the side,” Elder said. “That mixed with the consumption of sugary liquids is just asking for trouble.”
Elder stresses the need for more good, clean water in schools and the importance of school districts forming relationships with local farms.
San Diego began it’s Farm to Preschool Pilot Program in 2011 that, despite the title, serves preschools through 12th grade. The idea of the program is to source local foods to schools and families, teach nutrition, gardening and food preparation, along with arranging field trips to farms and farmer’s markets.
Elder says schools and health-forward programs are only half the battle, and there is only so much that can be done outside of the home.
“Parents are the best role models for their kids,” Elder said. “But if they’re chowing down and not exercising, then they’re definitely not exercising with their kid and there’s bound to be an issue.”
Parents set the guidelines for their children about where they can go, what they do, what they eat and how much they eat. Elder says in modern American society that can mean staying indoors, watching TV, and eating fast food in large portions.
Cooking at home can be time consuming and healthy foods are thought to be more expensive. With San Diego’s economic inequality deepening in recent years according to the Center on Policy Initiatives, more low-income families are buying less expensive foods. Unfortunately, this often means buying foods with lower nutrient density.
Katie Ferraro, president of the California Dietetic Association’s San Diego District, says the cheaper the food, the lower the quality. This means, despite the lower immediate cost, the price these people pay in the long run is much more. And they pay with their health.
“Heart disease, cancer, strokes and diabetes are directly related to food choices made or not made throughout the course of ones life,” Ferraro said. “And childhood is crucial.”
According to the CDC, consequences of childhood obesity include but are not limited to:
In addition to physical damage, obese children have a higher risk of social and psychological problems like discrimination and low self-esteem.
Kevin Nguyen, a rugby player at Long Beach State, grew up in San Diego and has struggled with being overweight all his life.
“Back when I was little it was uncomfortable,” Nguyen said. “I used to be called fat a lot, and worthless sometimes because I’m fat.”
SLIDESHOW: College athlete Kevin Nguyen shares his story of growing up overweight.
Nguyen says through high school he lacked confidence and wasn’t able to find himself, and get healthy and fit until college.
Overweight and obese children are not only more likely to be overweight or obese as adults, but their adult obesity tends to be more severe.
Nguyen says he’s lucky he was able to make the changes he has to his health.
“I can easily see people taking extremes to lose weight. I was one of them, and it’s just as bad for you as being overweight to begin with,” Nguyen said. “You have to be good to yourself to feel good about yourself.”