The Teenage Mind

The internal experience of the young adult

Adolescent Obesity

or No More Fat Teens


Now, that I've discussed the 3 major threats to adolescent survival - motor vehicle accidents, homicide, and suicide (see previous posts), I want to focus on adolescent health needs. If the teen has managed to stay alive, then quality of life and health needs become forefront. Healthy habits or poor ones established in adolescence provide the foundation for life-long habits. So, what are the health needs of an adolescent? How do these needs differ from those of children or adults? And, who is responsible for these needs? Parents? Schools? Government? Or the teen him or herself?

Adolescents are a unique population because they are neither children nor adults. Their bodies are not fully grown and they are legally minors. In fact, the very word, "adolescent" is derived from the Latin adolescere which means still growing. Biologically, their bodies are growing very rapidly. When the hormones kick in during puberty, they begin to mature sexually. This is complicated because teens want so badly to be independent and to make their own choices but legally and financially they are still dependent on their parents. One father described his teenage daughters as having sexually mature bodies and pea brains. Other teens have been described as thinking with their gonads. And, when asked, teens and even college students don't consider themselves adults. So, teens seem to have raging hormones and poor judgment but insist on making their own choices. What a dilemma! Furthermore, if the parent is too controlling the teen can rebel and cause themselves even more serious problems. Dealing with an adolescent in an adult body is delicate. In the time of Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet were married at puberty. Today we frustrate youth by prolonging adolescence.

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Who is responsible for the health needs of this child adult? Legally, she is still a minor so that points to parents, teachers, and even the government. But, she will soon be an adult, so she needs to be taking responsibility for her own nutrition, exercise, mental health, dental care, safety, medical care and reproductive health. And this is just her health, what about educational-career goals? Friends? Faith and finances? No wonder so many teens feel overwhelmed.

Returning to this question of adolescent health needs, what are they? Here's what comes to mind: good nutrition, exercise, reproductive health, medical care, dental care, safety and mental health. If you can think of something I've missed, please comment and let me know. For now, I am going to start with nutrition and exercise in the next few posts because of Michelle Obama's emphasis on obesity.

Yes, the government plays a role in the health of our youth and Michelle Obama has selected to focus on obesity. Why obesity? In her many media interviews, she says because it is a serious and growing problem. She says the problem was first called to her attention by her own doctor in the case of her daughter. Then, she began to reflect on the hectic lifestyles of carpooling and fast food that encourage poor eating and lack of exercise. Finally, she cites trends and statistics, 30% of 2-19 year olds are currently overweight or obese as compared to 5% in 1980.Unfortunately, obese childen and adolescents tend to become obese adults. And, obesity can lead to diabetes, cancer, heart problems, poor self-esteem, and social problems (http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/05/10/take-a-look-our-action-plan-solve-problem-childhood-obesity).

Nobody likes the word, "obesity," When asked why she uses this word, Michelle Obama says, because that is what it is. Obesity is estimated by Body Mass Index (BMI) which is a ratio of body weight to height. In children and adolescents, this individual measure is adjusted for age and sex and compared to growth charts. BMI at or above the 95th percentile is considered obese. This problem is now so severe that is being called and epidemic and national health crisis.

While most of us care about our own health and the well being of our families, it is also in our own self-interest to care about the health of our neighbors. If my friend's child is overweight and becomes an obese adult who later has bariatric surgery, it may very well come from my tax dollars. Obese children generally become obese adults. In 2008, it is estimated that $147 billion dollars went to medical spending related to adult obesity (http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/05/10/take-a-look-our-action-...). Obesity has health costs, financial costs, and is a serious public health problem.

Michelle Obama recently launched a program called, "Let's Move" with aim of solving childhood obesity within a generation. She is calling on a cooperative effort of parents, teachers, doctors, coaches, media, industry, and government to focus on this problem. The government Task Force on Childhood Obesity has developed 70 specific and measureable goals. The goals are too lengthy to go into detail here but can be found on government websites. To summarize, the main goals include:
• Giving kids a healthy start with good prenatal care, breastfeeding, good nutrition, exercise, and limited screen time
• Empowering parents and caregivers with improved food labels and dietary guidelines
• Improving food choices and meals in schools
• Access to healthy affordable food
• Getting youth more physically active through PE, recess, walking to school, riding bikes, and improving safe playground access

In sum, the government does play an important role in adolescent health. First, in education and leadership by explaining and providing information on nutrition, health, exercise, etc. Next, in leadership and morale. But the government also in provides services, like school lunches, and finally, government directly regulates industry and food labels. Adolescent obesity is an important topic and a solid beginning. Thank you, Michelle Obama. In my next post, I will focus directly on nutrition and the role of the parent and adolescent. See you next time!

Jann Gumbiner, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine College of Medicine.

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