Sizing Up A Generation Too much food, too little excercise put young people at risk physically and emotionally - as if adolescence isn't tough enough.

March 19, 1995|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

As a child, Jennifer DiPietro had a soft roundness to her. It was pleasing then, the sweet rosy cheeks and dimpled folds of skin that made grown-ups tickle and cuddle her.

Then came adolescence, and her plumpness became a sign of excess, leaving her exiled from the popular lunch table, taunted and often in tears.

Now, Ms. DiPietro -- age 17, size 18 -- has begun to accept her shape for what she thinks it is: a fact of life.

"Most times I see myself as a good person even though I'm not a little tiny stick," she says. "But there are still days when I say, 'I'm so fat.' "

I'm so fat. For more and more American kids, it could be a mantra. In recent years, medical researchers have put youngsters on the scale and found a disturbing trend: They're heavier -- and often unhealthier -- than they used to be.

Twenty-one percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 were overweight in 1991, a six percent increase from the decade before, according to the latest long-term study by the National Center for Health Statistics.

In fact, so many kids and adults are fat these days that some of the stigma may be fading.

When asked their feelings toward overweight people, 55 percent of the adults surveyed in a 1985 study by NPD Group, an Illinois-based marketing research firm, said being heavy is unattractive. Last year, only 36 percent said they felt that way.

In most schools, though, overweight kids still find themselves branded as outcasts.

"The effect of obesity on children is very big," says Denise Schuffman, a registered dietitian in Owings Mills who works with children. "The greatest problem is they're tormented. There's a lot of name calling. When it comes to activities, they're the last person chosen for sides. These sound like small things. But when you're a child, they're not."

If it's any consolation, youngsters are still slimmer than their parents. After remaining constant for two decades, the number of overweight adults jumped from one fourth to one third, the Center for Health Statistics found. (Overweight was defined as being roughly 20 percent over the recommended weight by the U.S. Public Health Service.)

There are probably as many theories why kids are gaining weight as there are flavors at Baskin-Robbins. But in the end, the problem boils down to one simple fact: Youngsters today are eating more than they're exercising.

"Kids don't even walk to school anymore," says Lori Wiersema, clinical coordinator of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. "It's a safety factor, and there's a time crunch that everyone's under. . . . Kids may not be consuming more calories, but they're expending less energy. So they simply get fatter over time. And as they get fatter, they become less motivated to move their bodies. It just doesn't feel good. It's the cycle that perpetuates fatness."

Instead of running around on the playground, they spend more )) time watching TV or playing video games. Their busy parents, often both working, rely on fat-laden fast foods and packaged frozen meals. And the world sends them hopelessly mixed messages about the proper diet.

At school, they're encouraged to eat fruits and vegetables, then asked to sell chocolates for a fund-raiser. At home, they're rewarded for finishing a big dinner with a sugary dessert.

Fat-free alternatives abound. But all around them, portion sizes -- like their own waistlines -- are growing. There's the "Bigfoot" pizza, the "Double Gulp" soft drink, the king-sized candy bar. The implicit message, of course, is bigger is better.

But the biggest problem may not be the food itself; it may be the reasons kids are eating it.

"If I had a bad day, I was constantly eating," says Amy Rohrbacher, 14, who weighed 170 pounds before health problems caused her to consult a dietitian. "But even on good days, I binged. Food was my security. It kept me away from people. It gave me something to do when I came home from school. . . . I'd sit in front of the TV and eat all afternoon."

Party food

But when youngsters are on the go, food still plays a major role in their activities.

Ms. DiPietro began planning her recent birthday slumber party by making a grocery list. (It included tacos, pizza, a vegetable platter, cookies, pretzels, Doritos, ice cream cake, M&Ms, Coke and Diet Coke for seven guests.) At Catholic High School where she's a junior, the principal's year-old decision to replace some vending machine snacks with granola bars and juice still annoys some students. And even the name for Ms. DiPietro's white pet rabbit -- Marshmallow -- alludes to the subtle power of food in her life.

On Sundays, she buses tables at Calo's, a family restaurant in Northeast Baltimore. Much of her other free time is spent working at a Carvel store, scooping out Brownie Dough ice cream, selling Dream Bars and decorating desserts with whipped cream flowers like the ones that festooned her own birthday cake.

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