'I DON'T WANT TO DIE YOUNG'; Poor Eating Habits and Lack of Physical Activity Contribute to a National Epidemic of Childhood Obesity, Exposing a Rising Number of Kids to Serious Health Risks

Article excerpt

Byline: Laura Diamond, Times-Union staff writer

Theresa Lennox has been battling her weight for nearly all of her 12 years.

Most times, weight wins.

Her mom traces her weight gain to age 3, when she developed a passion for Coca-Cola. The soda fueled her appetite, and soon she was eating seconds and thirds at meals.

By the time she was in kindergarten, she couldn't run as fast or for as long as her classmates. By the time she was 9, she already had tried dozens of diets, including one that allowed her to eat only fruit.

When she hit 300 pounds last year, Theresa and her family knew things had to change.

On doctors' orders, the entire family -- not just Theresa -- started eating healthier. Cereal, not cookies, for breakfast. Water instead of Coke. Salad rather than macaroni and cheese. Theresa now rides her bike for 30 minutes a day in her Callahan neighborhood. When she can't get on the bike, she plays basketball with friends.

This time, Theresa is winning. She already has shed about 50 pounds from her 5-foot-5-inch frame.

"This isn't just about looking good," she said as she pulled her T-shirt down to camouflage her body. "I want to feel better about myself. My life is dependent on it. I don't want to die young."

Theresa has reason to worry. She is a member of the first generation that isn't expected to live longer than the previous generation, medical researchers say.

Obesity is a national public health crisis, spreading like an infectious disease. If it continues at its current rate, researchers expect it to surpass tobacco as the leading indicator of premature and preventable death by 2020.

The number of overweight kids tripled between 1970 and 2000. Today, almost 9 million children -- 15 percent of kids ages 6 to 19 -- are overweight, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obesity can have serious health consequences, increasing the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease.

Theresa has type 2 diabetes, a disease once found only in adults that can damage the eyes, kidneys and heart. She must continue to lose weight or she'll be worrying about heart problems at a time when she should be thinking about college.

Too many calories

Theresa is in pain.

She walks slowly, with her shoulders slumped over, as though her body were paper she could reshape into a delicate piece of origami.

"People just see me as the fat girl," she said. "Sometimes I want to scream: 'Don't you think I want to be skinny just like all of you?' "

Theresa has an attractive, round face, with bright, attentive eyes. Her long, silky black hair receives envious stares from her middle school classmates.

"The hardest thing about being overweight is having to live with the fact I might be overweight my entire life," she said as she stared down at her shoes. "I'm never going to be one of those itty-bitty girls."

Fewer children are itty bitty because they consume more calories than they burn. Many kids eat a steady diet of large portions and high-calorie fast food and soda. They trade exercise and outside activities for watching television and playing video games.

In response to the epidemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics released this month its first policy dealing solely with identifying and preventing obesity-related disorders in children.

Lawmakers nationwide are changing policy to promote healthier eating in schools. Florida announced a new program last week encouraging elementary school children to eat more fruits and vegetables. And one food manufacturer, Kraft Foods, pledged to reduce sugar, fat and calories in many of its products and to reduce single-serving portions beginning in 2004.

Still, the best action is encouraging people to live healthier by decreasing calories and increasing their activities, said Donald George, chairman of the Healthy Jacksonville Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition. …