Local forum tackles epidemic of obestiy



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"Ohh, that's gross" comments Anna Jansen as she looks at a table of various fast-food orders and reads their calories and fat content. With Jansen is fellow Western Oregon University student Mike Strack.

POLK COUNTY -- Three of her four kids participate in organized sports. Trips to places like McDonald's and Burger King are rare.

Still, Melissa Tuben of Dallas says there's room for improvement as far as her family's health habits are concerned. Her children spend more time in front of the television set than she'd like. And with both she and her husband working during the day, dinners often consist of ready-made meals -- "Not quite fast food, but still not the best for you."

Then there are the lunches her children receive at school.

"They're atrocious," she said. "They're eating salads with lots of dressing ... they think they're eating healthy, but they're all foods loaded with fat."

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 16 percent of all children in the United States suffer from obesity.

It is figures such as those that persuaded Tuben and about 100 other local residents and students to attend a forum on childhood obesity at Western Oregon University.

Hosted by the college, Salem Hospital and the Statesman Journal newspaper, the forum featured a panel of health experts who discussed what the primary causes of obesity are, how it affects quality of life and how to combat the problem.

An increasingly sedentary lifestyle, made possible by technological advances, larger portion sizes for meals, and eating on the go are among the fundamental reasons for weight gain in the nation, said panelist James Lace, a pediatrician with Salem Hospital.

Meal servings have nearly doubled in the number of calories they contain. Near the back of the Pacific Room stood a display showing food from several different restaurant chains and their respective nutritional information.

A super-sized value meal from McDonald's topped the list at about 1,435 calories -- an entire day's recommended calorie intake in one meal.

"We all want to get more for our money, we don't want to feel cheated," said Lace, who noted that one in four children in Oregon are considered obese -- even worse than the one in six national average.

Other problems, ranging from childhood depression to diabetes in adults, can be traced back to diabetes, Lace said.

About 7 percent of all the patients on the Oregon Health Plan in Marion and Polk counties have been diagnosed with Type II diabetes. Cost for treatment is approximately $13 million.

"Obesity is on track to replace tobacco as the number one cause of preventable death in America," Lace said. "This is going to be the first generation in which the children have shorter lifespans than their parents."

There are measures parents can take to prevent the onset of obesity, said Sandra Frank, a Salem Hospital dietitian. This includes promoting unstructured play times for kids, serving breakfast in the morning to curb the desire hunger during the rest of the day, and limiting the amount of time kids sit in front of their TV sets.

Peggy Pedersen, a WOU health education professor, told the audience that in order to stave off obesity, people needed to learn the skill of reading and understanding the nutritional information on food labels.

Children need support from friends and family members in order to stick to a health regimen, she also said.

"We need to be patient with the process," she said. "Results are a gradual change, not an all-or-none proposition."

Battling a culture of obesity will take a community-wide effort, said WOU health and physical education professor and panelist Tom Kelly.

Encourage activity in your neighborhood by lobbying for running and bike trails, he said. If you're worried about the nutritional value of school lunches, express those concerns to your local school board, he continued.

"We're thinking about quality of life," he said. "If we are having more obesity problems now than we ever have before, what kind of world are we handing over to our children?"

Tuben said she planned on arranging more physical activities for her family in the next few weeks, and wanted to approach her local school board about lunch selection.

"I think a lot of people probably believe obesity is just a problem within their own family," she said. "But it's widespread."



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