Martial arts classes, such as the one in this undated photo being conducted by YBH (Youth Becoming Healthy), are one way for young residents of the Albany area to get moving through healthy exercise. (April 2013)
ALBANY, Ga. -- A recent report indicates there has been some improvement in the childhood obesity rates in Georgia, but there is still a long way to go.
While Georgia Department of Public Health officials say county data does not exist for childhood obesity, that appears to be as true in Southwest Georgia as it is anywhere in the state.
Once known as the state with the second most obese children in the nation, Georgia now ranks 17th nationally, according to a new report by the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health.
"Hopefully this is because of both awareness and programs," said Sarah Shiver, nutrition consultant for the Southwest Public Health District. "There is more awareness, and because of that, there are more programs so better choices are made."
The analysis of data was gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics, and formally released on Tuesday. Officials say it signals a significant improvement in the health of Georgia's children.
"This means our efforts are working," said Pam Jackson, founder of Youth Becoming Healthy in Albany.
Jackson founded Youth Becoming Healthy (YBH) in 2004 after her brother lost his battle to obesity-related illness. It is among the number of efforts under way to help overcome childhood obesity in the region.
"YBH has offered after-school wellness and community awareness programs over the years," Jackson said. "However, our focus has shifted to working with those who need us most either through one-on-one training by my spouse and most importantly, the free summer wellness camp. The kids we are targeting now are those referred by pediatricians who really need intervention.
"We hope to expand our services to community and school gardens and neighborhood and family intervention programs."
Julie Joiner, a dietitian with the Phoebe Diabetes Center, said childhood obesity is a concern her office continually sees.
"It is a very big issue; we see lots of overweight children," she said. "We have one physician in Americus, and it seems like that's all he sees."
In most cases, the problem can be traced to something going on within the child's family circle -- which is why many of the experts say they institute a family approach when addressing the issue.
"A large majority of the children we see are those whose parents also struggle with weight. It is all family-centered," Joiner said. "(Sometimes) grandparents dote and let them get extra snacks.
"Family members who baby-sit may impact it. All of the family needs to get on board (with helping the child develop healthy eating habits). Anyone the child spends time with..."
From Jackson's perspective, resource availability may also play a role.
"Some of the trends are lack of education, lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables and lack of available community resources that encourage physical activity," she said. "Many children live in unsafe neighborhoods and do not have transportation or finances to join other fitness organizations.
"The largest population facing childhood obesity is African-American and Hispanic children. Lifestyle choices play a major role in childhood and adult obesity, although some cases are genetic. It is important to discuss family history and make lifestyle changes a family affair."
Officials say children up to age 12 or 13 are especially more likely to be mirroring their parents' behavior in terms of eating and exercise habits.
"I challenge parents to eat only what they want their children to eat," Joiner said. "It's OK to have fun foods, but it needs to be for special events."
The experts generally recommend eating at the table as a family at least once a day, and to not eat in front of the TV or the computer.
"It creates a positive experience when the family eats together and takes away (the temptation) of watching TV while eating," Shiver said. "(When people eat in front of the TV), they are overeating and not paying attention."
It is also recommended to only allow for second helpings of non-starch vegetables, no sugary drinks, eating on smaller plates and trying to fill up the plate halfway with fruits and vegetables.
"I hear parents say that their child is still hungry, and I tell them to have them eat more vegetables," Joiner said.
One common mistake Joiner said she has seen parents make is to tell their children to clean off their plate, because it could potentially prevent the child from learning to pay attention to their hunger cues.
"(It's about) trying to teach the child to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full," she said.
Small changes made over time is the key, and the earlier they are done, the easier healthier habits can take hold.
"The earlier the better," Joiner said. "Once children decide they like healthy foods, they are (more likely) to try something new.
"I've seen children with Hawaiian Punch in bottles. There is no reason for an infant to get a sugary drink."
As far as exercise is concerned, an hour a day is recommended for children -- and 30 minutes a day most days for adults.
"Use an active DVD on a rainy day if that's what it takes," Joiner said.
Shiver said that breastfeeding alone gives children a fighting chance to avoid weight problems later on.
"It is shown in research to reduce childhood obesity," she said.
Joiner said that many of the children she sees are of late-elementary to early-middle school age. Some have pre-diabetes, or diabetes in their family history.
Aside from diabetes, obese children have to eventually deal with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and aches in their joints -- which just accounts for the physical impacts associated with obesity.
"They can't play with their friends; they can't keep up with their friends," Joiner said. "I always have tissues in my office, because either the kid or the parent will cry. They know they are different, and they know they have a problem.
"We still have plenty ways to go, but we are moving in the right direction."
Jackson's mindset is along the same vein.
"Since YBH was launched in 2004, childhood obesity has grown exponentially across Southwest Georgia, the region and nationally," she said. "It is a major epidemic claiming the health and lives of youth across the country. I believe we are beginning to make some head way, but have a long way to go. It is going to take the schools, parents and community as a whole to eradicate this problem.
"...Obese children become obese adults and the health care costs continue to run into the billions. It is going to take serious education, intervention, access and awareness to control this epidemic. YBH has been at the forefront and many other organizations and the First Lady have come on board. This is a national and community issue that needs to continue to be addressed."