When doctors talk about people who struggle with their weight, they use the terms "overweight" or "obese" or "severely obese" but that last term hadn't been associated with very young children until now. Last week, the American Heart Association said it's time to start labeling kids who are at least twice as heavy as their peers as "severely obese." Morning Edition Host Rick Jackson and ideastream health reporter Sarah Jane Tribble talk about this new category and what it really means.
RICK: Good morning, Sarah
SARAH: Good morning.
RICK: So, obesity. Again? Reallly?
SARAH: Severely, obese, Rick.
RICK: I love it when we start off with a fight. You gonna' throw around labels? I can work with that.
SARAH: All kidding aside, it does a take a moment for this news to sink in.
Think about it: The American Heart Association - not a pediatric group or a general medical group - released this report. They are increasingly concerned about the heart health of children and how obesity is - raising blood pressure, raising cholesterol levels, and blocking arteries.
RICK: So, what exactly is the heart association calling for and what difference does changing a label make in a situation like this?
SARAH: Their statement calls for children who are as young as TWO years old to be classified as "severely obese." When I called Aaron Kelly, the lead author for AHA's statement and a researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School, he explained that the heart association hopes awareness of the issue will also encourage research into how to help these children.
"The risk factors for heart disease and diabetes and the other problems that they have are so much more serious than the kids who may be overweight or obese face that we need to help the pediatric medical community and the public at large understand just how serious of a disease this is," Kelly says.
RICK: A few weeks ago, you featured a family that had two young children that had been told they had high cholesterol, right? Is this what we are talking about?
SARAH: You're thinking of the Byrnes. Laura is 13 and D.J. is 11 and they both were given reports of high cholesterol but they would not be classified as severely obese. Together, the mom, dad and kids are losing weight with diet and exercise.
Kelly said severely obese children are different. They are the ones who have trouble moving and changes to their diet are often not enough.
This population used to be a very small number but Kelly says it has grown to 4 to 6 percent of children nationally. And - even more alarming - research indicates that kids there are kids under that age of two that are severely obese as well.
RICK: Wait a minute. The CDC released a report in August celebrating that obesity rates in preschoolers were down nationwide.
SARAH: That's right. What's bothersome to a lot of researchers is the fact that while the overall obese population in the U.S. seems to be leveling off, this subcategory of severely obese is growing - both in adults and now kids.
A senior economist at the RAND Corp. last year released a study on this and expressed concerns that the people who are severely obese have the highest health care costs and are the most taxing to our society because they often can't work.
Kelly says the kids who are severely obese, sadly, have bodies that are too far gone. Like severely obese adults, those traditional lifestyle and eating changes generally don't work.
The heart association is calling for more research into lifestyle modifications as well as the safety of drugs and bariatric surgery.
RICK: Certainly an issue that all should be watching. You also have a bit of positive news for us?
SARAH: Yes. I love this story. It's feel-good news. The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, which is part of the same larger organization that operates St. Vincent Charity Medical Center in Cleveland's Central neighborhood, has been handing out small grants for the past five years.
The grants don't get a lot of attention because they are small and go to small nonprofit groups. But they fund things like healthy snacks for kids after school and ballet for little ones. The kind of activities that help kids not get severely obese.
I couldn't stop smiling last week after talking with Teleange Thomas. She's the program officer for health at the foundation and she explains that the foundation is really trying to "cultivate a culture of health" in a neighborhood that has more than its share of struggles.
"So that just like having a sound roof over your head and stable job are a priority, having a healthy, stable family are also a priority and something that's achievable," Thomas says.
The foundation hands out about half-a-million annually. And the next round of grants is being voted on by their board this Thursday.