Over ten million American kids between ages 10 and 17 are obese. One out of three are either overweight or obese. Those are startling numbers which are finally gaining some serious attention. Yet unlike obvious solutions that protect kids against tobacco and alcohol, there is no clear answer to this health challenge. Still, new research that links childhood obesity to future adult medical problems is forcing public health programs to rally and do something.
In a long-term study, published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine, the health of almost 5,000 children, born between 1945 and 1984, was tracked for 24 years. Researchers took measurements of body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Of this group, 559 died before the age of 55 with 166 of those deaths being from natural causes. Liver disease and cardiovascular disease were the most common causes of death.
Of the four key health factors measured, obesity (high BMI) was the telltale link to early death. The kids who made up the heaviest 25 percent had a premature death rate later in life that was more than twice as high as the leanest quartile. Having high blood pressure and high blood sugar as children showed the next two highest correlations (73 percent and 53 percent respectively). Both of these conditions were associated with being overweight as a youngster.
So, the harm is evident. The solution is not. Unlike cigarettes and booze, we can’t pass a law banning food consumption by minors. Even unhealthy foods, when eaten sparingly, won’t become addictive or cause immediate problems. Policymakers would like to find the easy silver bullet but, like adult obesity, there are many variables and lifestyle factors that combine to tip the scales.
In the current issue of Health Affairs, leading researchers and public health officials proposed a multi-pronged list of actions on several fronts. These include new taxes on high-calorie food and drinks, a requirement to list calorie counts for each item on restaurant menus, setting nutrition standards in schools for all food and drinks sold there and federal incentives for farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables rather than ingredients for high-calorie foods.
High profile public figures, including Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton, have also joined the debate. In Feburary, Obama kicked off the Let’s Move campaign, providing a national focal point for the federal government. Last week, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership between the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, announced progress in its campaign to reduce high calorie beverages in the nation’s schools. Since 2005, there has been an 88 percent reduction in total beverage calories shipped to schools, thanks to an appeal to both school districts and the beverage industry.
Even the National Football League is involved with its Play 60 campaign to encourage kids to turn off the TVs, phones and games and get moving for at least sixty minutes per day.
While no one would argue against better health for children, some opponents of government involvement in the obesity debate claim the answer lies in personal responsibility and choices rather than legislation and taxation. Adopting a “let them eat cake” personal freedom stance without influence from government may be construed as the American pursuit of happiness. However, when national marketing machines take aim at kids who are easily influenced, there needs to be a counterbalance of public health information and incentives. Carrots and sticks, with an emphasis on the carrots.
by Dan Peterson