March 25, 2011

What's Happening to These Kids?

If you were to imagine a scene featuring a gathering of healthy and happy children in a favorite place, what would you see? You might picture a sunshine-filled playground with merry-go-rounds, swings, and slides, literally overrun with dozens of screaming, laughing children. But if you do, your vision might also be a little skewed.
The playgrounds and playing fields of today aren’t nearly as full as they were years ago. After all, there are many other things to amuse children these days—such as video games, TV, and other indoor pursuits. And because of many societal factors that run the gamut from lifestyles to even safety issues, kids are not getting out and playing freely and with as much frequency as they should be. When they do, what sources of nutrition are many of them replenishing themselves with? Water, fruits, and vegetables? Not always.
Childhood obesity is now recognized as a major epidemic in North America—and one that is destroying young lives before they are fully lived. “Childhood obesity has definitely become an epidemic,” says Dr. Shanthi Thomas, a Maryland-based Adventist pediatrician. “I have worked in both inner-city and suburban settings and still encounter obese children on almost a daily basis.” This is also not a problem limited to families who are not Adventist.
So as a group of Christian believers blessed with a unique message that addresses healthful living for every member of the family, what are we doing about it? We may have the tools, but have we put them to good use for kids?
Hard Truth
U.S. first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative to combat childhood obesity has been widely publicized in the United States. Through Let’s Move (launched in February 2010) Mrs. Obama has involved herself in bringing this serious problem to the forefront of public discussion. In late 2010 she invited local faith leaders, including world church president Pastor Ted Wilson, to talk about ways groups such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church can work toward improving the health of children and putting an end to childhood obesity. And it’s a cause that we, as a faith community with a unique health message, must be heavily vested in.
According to the Let’s Move Web site, “over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled. Today, almost one in every three children in America is overweight or obese. . . . One third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives. Many others will face chronic obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma.”1 These are the hard and frightening facts many families are facing today. So what can we do to help?
“The Seventh-day Adventist Church ought to be foremost in helping combat what society seems to force on people through advertising and the general culture,” says Wilson. “Many times, even Seventh-day Adventists who have the availability of Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy and other resource materials may not actually know where or how to use them, and they just fall in line with the rest of society.” As parents, grandparents, and guardians with busy lives juggling child rearing with work, church, and community commitments, nurturing good healthy habits focusing on nutrition and exercise can easily get pushed to the lowest item on our list of priorities. But we can’t afford to let that happen. Ellen White wrote, “We should educate ourselves, not only to live in harmony with the laws of health, but to teach others the better way. Many, even of those who profess to believe the special truths for this time, are lamentably ignorant with regard to health and temperance.”2
“If [we’re] not really focused on how a child ought to eat, how they ought to live, then that child isn’t going to have the kind of spiritual formation to really enjoy what God has in store for them,” adds Wilson. And if we let that happen to our precious children—individuals who had no say in being born—the blame lies completely with us.
Action Starts Now
There are church-sponsored resources available. CELEBRATIONS is an acronym used to describe several key principles of healthy living set forth by the General Conference Health Ministries Department. The letters stand for the following:
This program is available as a collection of PowerPoint presentations to use in churches and even community health initiative settings. In addition, this program is currently being adapted into a kid-focused version with age-appropriate content and activities designed specifically for children. “Having children’s health as a separate entity under our Health Ministries Department would [also] be great,” adds Dr. Thomas. The Health Connection, a wellness catalog from the Review and Herald Publishing Association, contains a variety of health promotion tools available for use in churches and community outreach efforts and for the home as well.
As Pastor Wilson mentioned, our church has a wealth of information about healthful eating and the importance of exercise and lifestyle. That emphasis has been and always will be something that really sets the Seventh-day Adventist Church apart from other Christian denominations. Therefore we have a tremendous opportunity to do some real good in the world and to position ourselves as a source of hope to families who want to save their children’s lives. Churches can and should become centers to which community members can turn to find practical, economical solutions for improving the health and vitality of their children.
What would happen if local churches organized weekly fitness classes for kids? Perhaps there are individuals in your local congregation who work in the health-care industry or are personal trainers, or just have a passion for active healthy living. Think about the possibilities of organizing a class that made working out a fun, playful activity for children, followed by healthy, nourishing treats? Church-sponsored sports programs for children on Saturday nights or Sundays, perhaps accompanied by healthful meal-preparation classes for parents, are also excellent ways to reach out to your community and tell them that your church is a place to get answers for the serious problems that affect children today.
Need Further Convincing?
Consider these staggering facts. “Obese children and adolescents may experience immediate health consequences which can lead to weight-related health problems in adulthood,” according to “Obese children and teens have been found to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD), including high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and abnormal glucose tolerance. In a sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, almost 60 percent of overweight children had at least one CVD risk factor while 25 percent of overweight children had two or more CVD risk factors. In addition, studies have shown that obese children and teens are more likely to become obese as adults.”
When Dr. Thomas works with young patients to gain control over their weight issues, she says, “There has to be a gradual change in diet and exercise, or they will not adhere to it.” So she starts by counseling her patients with a “prescription.”
“I write down on a prescription pad the things they want to work on over the next two to three months. Options include eating five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, limiting TV and video games to no more than one hour a day, and getting at least 30 minutes of exercise per day,” Dr. Thomas says. She also encourages children to turn to their parents and even her with their concerns, rather than turning to food to combat an issue. In the end she stresses to the entire family that the focus is on health, rather than on numbers.
There are also many simple things we can encourage and practice in our homes that will really help our children form lifelong healthful habits. And these are habits they can eventually share with their peers in school and the community.
1 Dinner Together—Cooking and eating together as a family is so important for obvious reasons. But it can also make a difference in a child’s eating patterns, in the quantity and quality of what they eat, and in the practice of learning to enjoy food for its nourishment rather than its ability to quell emotions and cravings.
2 Model Behavior—Kids are always watching and learning, and they respond best to being led by example rather than words. If you want them to eat healthfully, you must do it yourself. If you want them to be physically fit, they must see your commitment to an active, healthy lifestyle. Being active is something the entire family can tackle together. Make it a group effort and reap the benefits while you teach your children.
3 Foster a Spirit of Gratefulness Always—Michelle Obama has been open about what she says to her daughters regarding healthy eating, reminding them that desserts are a treat, not a right. When we enjoy something special in small amounts, we should be grateful for the treat and the experience of eating it, rather than longing for more of it. A spirit of contentment for the nourishment God provides for us can make a huge difference in how we, and our children, learn to view food in general.
4 Put All Your Trust in God—This may be the last tip listed here, but it is the most important. Helping a child who is dealing with health challenges is a difficult experience—especially when the challenges are lifestyle-oriented. Remember to turn your children (and yourselves) toward God for strength, encouragement, and day-to-day clarity. He wants us to be happy, healthy, and living our lives to our fullest potential. His involvement in any family’s quest to be spiritually and physically strong is everything.
God created our bodies to move and thrive. He has provided us with the foods we need to live our best lives on this earth. That so many children—who are so precious to Him—are facing serious health and emotional problems as a result of poor nutrition and lack of physical activity is deplorable. We as a church cannot stand idly by. We have been blessed with a unique message for healthy living that others are only starting to learn about, and we can use this knowledge to save children.
We have to.
2 Ellen G. White, Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene (Battle Creek, Mich.: Good Health Pub. Co., 1890), p. 117 .

Wilona Karimabadi takes care of KidsView, which is Adventist Review’s magazine for kids. This article was published March 24, 2011.