BY LISA WARREN
Tracy Green knows that overweight children and adolescents often become obese adults.
As a wellness program director, Green is working hard to combat this problem in Greeneville and Greene County - and she is encouraging the rest of the community to become proactive about it as well.
Green was among the guest speakers at this month's Passport 55 program, a monthly health lecture series held at Roby Fitzgerald Adult Center by Laughlin Memorial Hospital.
Green, who serves as Laughlin's Wellness Program director, was joined at the talk by Ashley Head, a registered dietitician and nutrition counselor at the hospital.
"Greene County's obesity rate is unbelievable," Green said during her talk.
She cited the findings of a community health needs assessment that was conducted last year in a joint effort of the wellness programs at both Laughlin Memorial and Takoma Regional hospitals.
Childhood obesity ended up being one of the top three health issues in Greene County, Green said.
"The younger generation is all about social media, computer games and video games. And I know my children are guilty of that as well," Green said.
"When I was growing up, we played hopscotch, jacks and jump rope - and we often stayed outside until mama called us in at dark," she said.
This has changed in today's world, she said.
In Tennessee, at least 15.2 percent of children ages 2-5 are overweight and 14.5 percent are obese, Green said.
Among adolescents in Tennessee, 15.1 percent are overweight and 16.8 percent are obese, she added.
Citing health statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), she said that more than 30 percent of the adult population in Greeneville and Greene County has a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher.
BMI is a calculation of a person's body fat based upon height and weight. For a BMI calculator, go to http://www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi/bmicalc.htm .
Ideally, persons should have a BMI between 24.9 and 18.5, Green said.
Overweight is definied as a BMI of 25 to 29.9. A BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese - with a BMI of 35 or higher considered severely obese.
According to the CDC, obesity now affects 17 percent (or over 12.5 million) children and adolescents, ages 2-19.
"This is triple the rate of just one generation ago," Green said.
"If this were a disease that was going to wipe out a major portion of the population, everyone would be in a panic trying to find a cure," Green said.
But the fact is -- obesity is a disease that kills, she said.
"Overweight kids often become obese, unhealthy adults - which is why we need to be proactive about combatting this," Green said.
"Many children are also overweight - and undernourished," Green added. "They are not eating the right kind of foods."
During her portion of the program, Head presented several helpful tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion to decrease sugar intake among children.
Among those tips:
* Serve small portions - It's not necessary to get rid of all sweets and desserts. Just eat less of them. Use smaller bowls and plates for these foods. Have kids share a candy bar or split a cupcake.
* Sip smarter - Offer water, 100 percent juice or fat-free milk instead of soda and other sweetened drinks when kids are thirsty.
* Don't offer sweets as a reward - By offering food as a reward for good behavior, children learn to think that some foods are better than others. Reward your child with kind words and comforting hugs, or give them non-food items, such as stickers, to make them feel special.
* Make fruit the everyday dessert - Serve baked apples, pears, or enjoy a fruit salad. Frozen juice bars made with 100 percent juice are also a good idea.
"Childhood obesity is a serious, but solvable, issue," Green said.
To help get more children thinking about fitness, Green and the Laughlin Wellness Program mascot Ben E. Fitz, a large and rather buff bee, can often be found visiting area schools and presenting health programs.
Last year, the Laughlin Wellness Program conducted a health program at Tusculum View Elementary School, where staff led a 30-minute exercise program prior to the school day for two weeks.
"This was an experiment to see how it would impact the kids," Green said.
After the two weeks, the principal reported such an improvement in student behavior and mood that the school decided to continue the program three mornings a week.
Rather than requiring the students to go and sit in the cafeteria prior to the start of the school day, they are given the option to either sit and be quiet - or go into the gymnasium and exercise.
Most students choose to exercise, Green said. Children need to release energy, she added.
What can members of the community, parents and grandparents do to battle the problem of childhood obesity?
"Children must be motivated to make better food choices," Green said.
"They must also be offered safe places to exercise and community-supported wellness events," she added.
Ideally, children and adolescents need at least one hour or more of physical activity daily.
She encouraged schools to increase the amount of physical education time for students. Studies have shown that academic performance increases in students the more they exercise, Green said.
There are so many different types of beneficial exercise. The key is finding the ones that you like - and sticking to them, Green said.
Green noted that Laughlin Hospital is now partnering with Weight Watchers to offer a weight-loss program for families.
A new session is beginning soon, and financial scholarships are available for children. Interested persons should call 787-5097.