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Childhood Obesity: Heavy Issue for Tennessee

The increased access to fast food and limited availability of fresh food markets is believed to be among the causes of a high child obesity rate in Tennessee. (Jon Bunting/Flickr)
The increased access to fast food and limited availability of fresh food markets is believed to be among the causes of a high child obesity rate in Tennessee. (Jon Bunting/Flickr)
September 6, 2017

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Many Tennessee children are overweight, with approximately one out of every five classified as obese, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The foundation’s State of Obesity report ranks Tennessee fifth in the nation compared to other states for its number of overweight children.

The cause, according to experts such as Kindall Hurley, coordinator of the Childhood Obesity Coalition at East Tennessee Children's Hospital, is largely linked to access to healthy food.

"In some of our rural areas, the options are typically gas stations, McDonald's,” she points out. “In those places where they actually can get food, the food is not necessarily a healthy option."

September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Experts recommend children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day.

Tennessee's culture of rich, southern foods is also believed to be a factor. Nutritionists recommend finding ways to make favorite dishes healthier, and encourage children to fill half of their plate with fruits and vegetables.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood estimates children ages 8 to 18 spend seven hours a day in front of a screen.

Kathleen Casey, a child obesity specialist at East Tennessee Children's Hospital, says the shift towards screen use isn't helping.

"Children are on screens more – whether it be computer, video games, cell phones – and they're more on the screens than actually out there playing outside and doing different things like that," she points out.

Studies find that for each hour of television viewing per day, children consume an additional 167 calories.

Casey says additional time in front of screens is often a habit modeled by parents, who also can shift child behaviors.

"Be a good role model,” she urges. “Letting them try new foods, healthy foods. Parents themselves eating good foods. Parents can just go outside and play different games with their kids instead of just sitting, watching them; maybe if they interact with them more."

Unlike some other states, Tennessee public schools are mandated to make physical education part of the curriculum, but there is no minimum amount of time it must be offered.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - TN