In raising their children, many Costa Ricans apparently believe what their grandmothers taught them: the rounder a child, the healthier he or she is, said National Children s Hospital nutrition director Regina Velasco.
The recently released results of a government study suggest 20.6% of Costa Rican schoolchildren are overweight something authorities interpret as an omen of future health risks.
The study, which evaluated more than 25,500 children and adolescents ages 7-15, also revealed there are more obese children than underweight children in Costa Rica, and 12.35% of young Ticos have high cholesterol levels.
The investigation, a joint project by the Ministry of Public Education and the Social Security System (Caja), was conducted throughout the country in 2002, using World Health Organization (OMS) body mass index standards.
Education Minister Manuel Bolaños and Caja president Alberto Sáenz agreed the results, released Feb. 15 during a press conference at Buenaventura Corrales public school in downtown San José, are a warning sign.
The information about children s excessive body weight is an alarm bell, Sáenz said to an audience of reporters and students piled into the school s assembly hall.
According to nutritionist Velasco, obesity, presented by 7.9% of overweight children in the study sample, generates the risk of developing diabetes, bone problems, cancer, cardiovascular illnesses such as hypertension, and self-esteem problems.
Only 6.2% of children in the study presented a weight deficit predominantly females in rural areas and 73.2% of Costa Rican children fell into a weight range considered appropriate.
According to OMS standards for the year 2000, a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5-24.9, obtained by dividing a person s weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared, is considered normal, while people considered underweight have BMIs below 18.5.
The portion of Costa Rican children considered overweight had BMIs falling in the range of 25-29.9, while a BMI of 30 or above is considered obese.
In past years, (health) problems had to do with malnutrition and parasites, but today, we see the results of a study that places us in a position similar to developed nations, Sáenz said during the press conference.
Among the multiple reasons for child obesity in Costa Rica listed by nutritionist Velasco, many point to the country transitioning from a developing nation to a developed nation.
For example, Velasco mentioned that while women used to stay home to tend to their families, it is now common for both parents in Tico households to work, leaving children unsupervised at home for long periods of time, during which they can eat whatever they want.
Also, after parents return from work, it is simpler and faster for them to throw a slab of meat into a frying pan than prepare a healthy meal, she said.
In recent years, Costa Rica has been bombarded by fast-food restaurants advertising toys and games in hopes of attracting young consumers, she added.
Velasco, a nutritionist at the Children s Hospital in downtown San José for 17 years, said it has not yet been proven whether there is a gene for obesity, but she believes the genetic component of this condition is minimal.
What has more weight here is what I pass on to my children in terms of habits. Children eat what their parents like if they don t like liver, they re unlikely to bring it to the table, she told The Tico Times, explaining that parents are responsible for creating these habits in their children when they are babies.
There are parents that make the mistake of adding sugar to the milk they feed their babies. This establishes a parameter of sweetness and educates them to seek this taste, she said.
Velasco said the same applies to greasy foods. One of the functions of grease, she said, is to add flavor to food. If a child is not fed greasy meals, he or she will not grow accustomed to this taste and seek it later in life, she explained.
Treating Child Obesity
Child obesity should not be treated with diet pills, but with exercise and healthier lifestyles, including diets rich in fruits and vegetables, according to Caja president Sáenz, who, like President Abel Pacheco, attended Buenaventura Corrales as a child.
Velasco agreed, recommending the rule of five, which calls for five portions of fruits and vegetables per day. Children should also eat at least one portion of salad and raw vegetables per day, she said.
In terms of exercise, she said children, whose entertainment has gone from yard games to in-house activities, such as computer games, are just not moving around enough these days.
Parents should encourage the habit of exercise in their children, ideally for 30-40 minutes at least three times a week, she said.
The nutrition expert said four elements must be integrated in treating obesity: a psychological element, a medical element, physical training, and a nutritional component.
The Caja provides two of these elements: the medical and nutritional ones, she said.
However, parents may seek the other two privately, or ask for references of psychologists and gyms at the Caja.
Velasco said that outside the Caja, a plethora of private options exist in the country for treating child obesity.