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Black children more likely to be obese, according to recent studies.

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In the past decade, Pittsburgh has made better strides to include minorities in medical research, access to treatment and free health screenings. Yet for all of our advances in healthcare, along with the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, pediatric obesity rates continue to climb, and, are disproportionally higher in Pittsburgh’s African American and Latino communities. A recent study from the Institute of Medicine[1] (IOM) states that 1 in 5 preschoolers —  2 to 5-year-olds, are overweight or obese. And, nearly 30 percent of Pennsylvania children are overweight[2], according to the most recent statistics available. Simply put, this is unacceptable. We are failing our kids by not providing them with enough good nutritional and fitness choices and the results can be devastating. Many obese children go on to have long-term, chronic health conditions including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and sleep apnea.  

What can we do here in western Pennsylvania to help combat childhood obesity among African Americans and Latinos? We can take advantage of a number of local programs available, including in our underserved communities.  For example, funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped finance a pilot project known as the Pennsylvania Healthy Food Finance Initiative. Studies have shown that people who do not have regular access to fresh foods have a higher incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. The program is designed to reduce disease by providing healthy immune-boosting foods and stimulate area businesses for economic growth by providing living wage jobs. The Reinvestment Fund recently matched the State’s $30 million grant with $120.6 million[3] in additional funding.

If you crave sweet corn and vine ripe tomatoes, you won’t have to go very far to enjoy them this season. Many neighborhood Farmer’s Markets offer a variety of fresh produce and accept ACCESS cards. Bring your children and allow them to pick the fruits and vegetables and try a new recipe. They will enjoy seeing where their food comes from and gain an appreciation for eating. Better yet, start a garden with your kids. Pittsburgh community gardens are growing this season, literally. The City’s Grow Pittsburgh Community Food Garden[4] project offers many incentives and resources to start your own garden including free mulch and starter plants. The two pilot sites in Lawrenceville and Uptown were so successful that the project has grown to include nearly a dozen other communities, including Highland Park, the Hill District and Homewood. To see a complete listing of Community Food Gardens, visit www.growpittsburgh.com.

Pennsylvania is taking the child obesity epidemic seriously enough that they are introducing laws to reverse this deadly trend. One law includes routine Body Mass Index (BMI) screenings. BMI is a scale used by doctors to calculate the amount of body fat in relation to the child’s height and weight. Too much body fat means trouble because it can lead to illness and other problems. A recent report from the U.S. Army[5] cited that today’s young adults are so overweight that many cannot pass the military’s basic physical exam. This presents as an issue of national security if we’re producing a generation of young adults who are too heavy to defend our country.

During the school year, kids spend up to 8 hours a day in the classroom. Because of this, another Pennsylvania law is examining school lunches. The Edible Schools Project, now in its 5th year, is an offshoot of the Grow Pittsburgh Project and incorporates gardening skills into the program so students improve their overall eating habits. Project coordinators help students find a suitable place to grow a vegetable garden and work with teachers to develop a school curriculum around the project so students gain an understanding of agriculture science, farming practices and the importance of recycling. It’s possible the next time you eat out at a local restaurant that your fruits and vegetables may have come from Pittsburgh Public Schools.

U.S.D.A: Transitioning from the Pyramid to the Plate

We all know getting our children to eat healthier can be a challenge, especially during the summer season when family picnics and trips to the ballpark and pool fill the weekend schedule. Often the healthy food choices are slim at these locations. To make things simpler for parents, the U.S.D.A. replaced the familiar food pyramid logo with a newer plate model. Review these new food guidelines and discuss with your children. Allow them to choose which healthier foods to eat. Get the kids involved with preparing the meal. Plan a menu for the week and pack healthy snacks like whole-wheat pretzels or fruit snacks. Simple planning will reduce the amount of calories your family eats. Keep summer block parties and family barbeque menus healthier by forgoing the high-calorie ingredients found in soul food and consider serving fresh vegetables and fruit-based salads instead. Healthier versions of traditional soul-food recipes may be found at www.soulfoodandsoutherncooking.com.

A recent New England Journal of Medicine[6] study last month found that certain food items that contain complex carbohydrates (food starch that turns to sugar), like potato chips, and sugary drinks are the highest causes of weight gain over time. The researchers estimated that just one extra daily serving of potato chips can add on nearly two pounds each year. The study also found that Americans are drinking many of their calories so limit the amount of juice your kids drink. The same goes for sports drinks, which are also high in sodium.

Get moving and enjoy the scenery

Research from the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services[7] reports black children spend more time watching TV than children of any other racial group. If your child plays a lot of video games or likes to surf the Internet, limit the amount of screen time. Schedule activities around your children’s favorite shows so they don’t feel left out. If they know going into summer what the screen time boundaries are, they are more likely to stick to the rules. If access to public parks or the local gym is an issue, climb stairs instead of using the elevator, use a jump rope or hula-hoop for indoor exercise. Also, public TV stations sometimes broadcast free exercises classes, which can be done in the comfort of your own home or apartment.

“Many overweight kids think that exercise is something that is painful and hard, but it doesn’t have to be if you present fitness to them in a fun way. Just going on a family walk can be great exercise. You will get to enjoy the scenery and company while walking off those extra pounds,” says pediatrician Jamie Calabrese, M.D., F.A.A.P., medical director, Gateway Health Plan®, and president, Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In the July 2011 issue of Pediatrics[8], the group issued a policy statement calling for a ban on junk food commercials during children’s television programming. This includes a proposed ban on junk food ads via text messages on cell phones and other digital media, after researchers found that 98 percent of food ads that aired during top children’s programming were junk food ads.  

Parents can set a positive example and begin a workout routine with their kids. If your child wants to try a new sport, summer is the best time to join a sports camp that offers lessons in swimming, tennis, football, soccer, baseball and basketball. This is perfect time to build upon new skills for next season.

You don’t have to run the Pittsburgh Marathon to get in shape. There are plenty of smaller community race/walks for a good cause. Gather a group of friends, neighbors and family to support a charity of choice. Many local parks offer opportunities for recreation and fun, such as obstacle courses that the kids can bike or run. Some of the Citiparks are spray parks, where water play is encouraged. For a complete listing of recreational activities in Pittsburgh, visit www.city.pittsburgh.pa.us/parks/. The Great Allegheny Passage Rail-Trail provide plenty of green space where people of all ages can walk, run, bike and in-line skate their way around Pittsburgh’s three rivers and enjoy the downtown skyline mixed in with a bit of Pittsburgh’s storied Steel-era history.

By taking advantage of Pittsburgh vibrant fitness opportunities, you can make your children and families healthier. Have a safe, happy and healthy summer everyone.

For more information on dates and times and Farmers’ Market schedules, call Citiparks at (412)422-6547.

Citiparks Farmers’ Markets May 9-November 23, 2011 locations

  • East Liberty at Penn Circle West
  • South Side at 20th and Sidney Streets
  • Carrick (Carrick Shopping Center) at Brownsville Rd. & Parkfield St.
  • Bloomfield at Immaculate Conception School parking lot, Cedarville St. & Friendship Ave.  
  • Beechview, Beechview & Broadway Aves.
  • Downtown Pittsburgh, City County Building, Grant Street
  • North Side, Allegheny Commons Park (East Commons) East Ohio Street and Cedar Ave.  

About Gateway Health Plan®

Gateway Health Plan® (Gateway) is a managed care organization (MCO) that provides members with access to quality healthcare with our two lines of business, Medicaid and Medicare.

Gateway emphasizes the development and delivery of innovative programs to positively affect the personal health of its members through its unique Prospective Care Management (PCM®) program and health literacy initiatives. Gateway maintains a healthcare delivery system that ensures the availability of high quality medical care for the Gateway member based upon access, quality and financial soundness. For more information, visit www.GatewayHealthPlan.com

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[1]Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, June 24, 2011: Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Policies.

[2] 2008 Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System (PedNSS) Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health. www.nichq.org

[3] The Reinvestment Fund: Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative www.trfund.com

[4] Grow Pittsburgh Community Food Garden Project: www.growpittsburgh.org

[5] Department of Defense Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, Jan. 2011

[6] New England Journal of Medicine, June 24, 2011 Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in men and women.

[7] Office of Minority Health, Obesity and African Americans, 2009 U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov

[8] Pediatrics, July 2011: Children, Adolescents, Obesity and the Media

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