America’s children are getting fatter and need help from parents, schools, the government, advertisers and the food industry to get back in shape, a panel of experts said Thursday.
The report on childhood obesity from the Institute of Medicine paints a picture of children awash in a society that makes it difficult to exercise and eat right, from suburbs with no sidewalks to schools that sell sugary snacks in vending machines.
“At present, approximately nine million children over 6 years of age are considered obese,” the report reads.
It does not call for sweeping legislation but proposes moves such as clearer labeling requirements for junk foods and getting schools involved in monitoring students’ weight and health.
The institute, an independent group that advises the federal government on health matters such as vitamin requirements and medical insurance, appointed a committee of pediatricians, educators, industry experts and lawyers to look at childhood obesity.
The report says nutritional standards should be set for all foods and beverages served on school grounds, including those from vending machines.
The committee of 19 experts also recommended that schools add programs to get children to exercise at least half an hour a day.
The food, beverage, and entertainment industries should self-regulate how they sell food and drink to children, modeled perhaps on voluntary guidelines for promoting alcohol, the panel said.
Restaurants should do more to provide healthy alternatives and should list calorie content and nutrition information.
“Frankly, how many more of these reports do we need before the government actually starts adopting some of these policies?” asked Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been pressing for strong legislation and regulations to limit junk-food marketing to children.
“Congress should help parents by requiring calories and other nutrition information on chain-restaurant menus, getting junk foods out of schools, and by directing the Federal Trade Commission to restrict the advertising of junk foods to kids.”
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said his department was working to encourage exercise and healthier eating.
“The FDA is examining how to revise food labels to ensure that parents clearly understand how many calories they and their children are consuming,” Thompson said in a statement.
Parents should encourage healthier eating and should help their children get more exercise, partly by limiting time in front of the television or computer to two hours or less a day, the panel said.
Surveys by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation have found that nearly one out of every four children aged 8 and older spend more than five hours a day watching TV, and that children 6 and under spend an average of two hours a day watching television or playing computer and video games.
The foundation estimated the typical child saw about 40,000 commercials a year on TV, most for candy, cereal, soda and fast food. The food and beverage industries spend $10 billion or more a year marketing directly to children and youth, the committee found.
“By the time they are 14 years old, 52 percent of boys and 32 percent of girls are drinking three or more eight-ounce (225-gram) servings of soda a day,” the institute noted.
Revision date: July 8, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD