September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness month, and for the first time in many years, there is cause to celebrate…but only a little bit. After a long period of steady annual increases since the year 2000, we have finally begun to see incidence, or number of new cases, of childhood obesity leveling off. This is good news and demonstrates that targeted public health education initiatives and legislation like Michele Obama’s “2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” have started to increase awareness about the long-term perils of obesity in children. Yet, the urgency to see a reduction (and not just a leveling) of these numbers remains a top priority, as children diagnosed with obesity are projected to experience a lower quality of life, reduced work productivity and shorter life spans than previous generations.
Today, one out of every three children are obese in this country, and diseases typically seen in adulthood are developing in younger and younger generations. From a medical perspective, being overweight or obese complicates all biologic processes. This is especially true as it relates to increased infection risk, reduced immune function and recovery, an increased need for pharmaceuticals, and costly medical procedures, creating unsustainable conditions long into the future. So, how do health professionals and communities raise the level of urgency, inspire action and make a lasting impact towards reversing this health challenge?
The Path Forward
Only systemic as well as interpersonal lifestyle changes will advance the goal of eliminating childhood obesity nationwide. It’s time to acknowledge a collective responsibility in the objective to improve both the economic viability and well-being of future generations. The path forward requires collaboration among businesses, government agencies and families to discover ways that individuals and policies can align to fight this devastating epidemic. We must:
1. Encourage daily physical activity of any kind!
Today’s children are born into a sedentary culture where technology drives engagement and recreation. To entice children to get outside again, there needs to be greater local investment in safe places to walk, bike and play in underserved communities. Prior recommendations of moderate exercise three times a week is not enough to counteract our modern, sedentary lifestyle. Schools have the responsibility to increase general physical education requirements and offer more time for physical activity in their daily curriculum. Daily exercise of any kind will help to mitigate the powerful influence and onslaught of advertising of junk food to kids.
2. Educate kids about food systems, how to read labels and empower activism in younger generations.
Cheap, processed foods are laden with hidden ingredients and sugar that is insidiously making Americans fat. New research on obesogens, chemicals that disrupt the regulation of fat storage and the effect of sugar on our metabolism, have shed light on a conundrum that the U.S. financially and legislatively supports processed over whole foods. Federal crop subsidies are proliferating a toxic food system and the healthiest, most nutritious foods are often the most expensive. Change in business as usual is critical if we are going to see a reduction in obesity in the population, but we’re up against some very strong lobbying efforts from big agriculture business. Efforts to change this require shifting market demand, insisting on transparency of labeling, supporting small local farmers and boycotting the purchase of highly processed foods that dominate grocery store shelves. On an individual level, we need to re-commit to cooking more meals at home using fresh ingredients, and eating substantially more fruits and vegetables than animal proteins. It’s true, we need serious food reform in this country to improve health equity across the board, but the market will respond when more people are empowered to demand cleaner food products.
3. Get kids cooking in the kitchen!
Kids rely on snacking and junk food to get through life, but empowering them with tools to cook delicious food will both influence their taste buds and give them valuable life skills. Cooking healthy food requires imagination and creativity, but eating more fruits and vegetables is a no-brainer when they are prepared well and taste great. Organizations like The Ceres Project in Sonoma County, California are leading the charge in this nutrition revolution, where teens are the head chefs providing healthy meal delivery to people undergoing cancer treatment. The results are astounding! When children really understand the power of food to heal, they will shift their choices and influence the people around them to do the same.