Childhood obesity has become a serious health problem in the United States. Healthcare experts say obese kids are developing life-threatening conditions usually seen in adults, like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. They warn that overweight children have a 70% chance of becoming overweight adults. While many efforts to reduce obesity among children focus on one aspect or another of this problem, a new initiative is taking a more comprehensive approach.
The seeds of adult obesity are often planted in childhood. "I'd eat my Grandmother's biscuits with butter melted in them, with homemade jam that she had made soaking down into the biscuits, and it was delicious," recalls Judith Moore, author of Fat Girl.
Besides those butter-soaked biscuits, the author recalls eating lots of fast food and unhealthy snacks. In her book, she recounts her life as an obese child and overweight adult, struggling unsuccessfully to lose weight with all kinds of diets. She says parents should realize the road to a healthy life begins at the dinner table.
"I think they (today's children) miss -- without knowing what they're missing -- the wonderful sitting around the table at dinnertime and sharing a meal," Ms. Moore says. "People, sort of, do 'pick up food' and they eat at different times because Mom has to work and Dad has to work. Where there is no Dad, Mom has to work 2 jobs then come home and try to make macaroni and cheese."
Former President Bill Clinton, famous for his fondness for burgers, says he was overweight as a child and has struggled with his weight on an off all his life. He says his decades of poor eating habits caused the cardiac problems that led to his heart surgeries, adding, "I thought in view of the publicity that my heart problems got, I might be able to have an impact on this childhood obesity.
So Mr. Clinton is spearheading a 20-year-long initiative against obesity launched in April by the American Heart Association. "I think the consequences are enormous," he says. "You've got onset of adult diabetes in children now plainly because their eating habits are aggravated by the lack of exercise. We've got to change the eating habits of America's young people."
The former president is being joined in this campaign by the once-obese Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Mr. Huckabee lost 105 pounds after being diagnosed with type 2-diabetes. "My doctor sat me down and said, 'If you don't change your lifestyle, you're in the last decade of your life,' the governor says. "It really shook me up. I realized that I was digging my own grave with a knife and a fork."
The Childhood Obesity Initiative targets the problem with a comprehensive approach that highlights the importance of both healthy eating choices and physical activity. Mr. Clinton says children need support from their parents, schoolteachers and the whole society. "We have to change the eating environment for our children," he says. "If you just reduce the number of calories that our children are taking by 50 a day, it will make a huge difference to them over the course of their childhood."
According to Dr. Allen Dearry of the National Institute of Environmental Heath Sciences (NIEHS) such 2-pronged initiatives can reduce the extent of childhood obesity. "A lot of our prior efforts in this regard have focused on only one end or the other of what we call energy balance. They focused only on better diet or on physical activity," Dr. Dearry says. "But what President Clinton and Governor Huckabee are trying to develop, as well as what we're promoting here in NIEHS, is a set of activities that covers that whole scope, that enables people to have better diet and nutrition as well as engage in physical activity."
Dr. Dearry says the battle against obesity in America will be won - or lost - by decisions made in communities across the country. "What types of lunches are served in school system? What's in the vending machines? Whether there is physical education in school," he says. "And the same thing applies to the transportation system… whether we build more roadways or public transportation, whether we have bikeways and sidewalks along our roadways. All those decisions are again very much made at the local level."
Dr. Dearry says many communities now recognize that obesity is a serious problem, and are acting accordingly. It's encouraging, he says, that many positive changes have already taken place to create a better environment for promoting a healthy life-long lifestyle.