Childhood Obesity: Signature Project Sounds the Alarm

First Lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity her signature project. Speaking out on the issue is a noble start to overcoming an alarming problem.

Obesity has tripled among America's adolescents. It rose from 5 percent in 1980 to more than 18 percent in 2008. Among children 8 to 11, obesity increased from 6.5 percent to 19.6 percent. (CDC)

Associated risks for obese children include increased incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, breathing problems, sleeping difficulties, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety. (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry)

Continuing risks during adulthood are dire. Computer generated forecasts, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007, estimated that by 2035 the prevalence of coronary heart disease will be 5 to 16 percent higher than today due to childhood obesity.

Major culprits for the epidemic include poor dietary habits and a more sedentary lifestyle, most likely learned from parents. A recent study reported the overall obesity rate among adult Americans was 33.8 percent in 2008. (Journal of the American Medical Association, January 20, 2010)

Obesity is an enormously complex issue. Changing the underlying social and cultural causes will require a sea change. Making incremental progress will require the cooperation to implement—and sustain—practical measures that can make a difference.

In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report outlining ten key strategies schools could take to combat childhood obesity. It continues to issue reports, guidelines and tools. Are they working?

A study reported in Health Affairs in March 2010 offers some hope. San Francisco State University researchers compared body mass index data from students in fifth and seventh grades before and after California adopted regulations banning sodas, highly sweetened beverages and junk foods in pubic schools. Based on eight years of data, researchers found that before the measures were enacted, obesity rates were increasing in all groups. In the three years after the ban, obesity rates slowed in all study groups except fifth-grade girls. (UPI)

To stay healthy, children need guidance in schools and at home. Actions speak louder than words. America has been taking some action against childhood obesity with limited success. Maybe what we've needed is the First Lady's words.

— Tom DeSanto

Image: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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