Twenty years ago, medical experts began sounding the alarm about the rising incidence of adult obesity and the attendant medical problems, such as diabetes, stroke, cancer and heart disease. (Mom and Dad weighed too much.) Then the spotlight shifted downward as surprising numbers of teenagers packed on pounds. (Jennifer, their 13-year-old weighed too much.)
Alarmed pediatricians then focused attention on even younger children when they began to see overweight toddlers and elementary school children in their examining rooms, particularly when those young patients showed signs of type 2 diabetes. (Ian, their 7-year-old, weighed too much.) And last year, members of the American Pediatric Society learned about the latest worrisome development--a rise in newborn obesity resulting from maternal obesity. (Their new baby girl, Isabelle, had a disproportionate amount of baby fat and a heart defect.)
In an effort to design meaningful interventions to reverse this epidemic of obesity among family members, researchers are seeking to understand the underlying causes, school officials are measuring fitness levels, pediatricians are testing for signs of heart disease, and at least one government, Mexico, is limiting access to fattening foods in schools. Below are highlights of recent developments:
The Detrimental Role of Parents and Schools in the Developing Childhood Obesity Epidemic: Findings from a study conducted at Binghamton University suggest that parents and schools, the two biggest influences on children, may be unintentionally jeopardizing their children’s health. Susan Terwilliger, clinical associate professor, observed third-grade children in four different schools in Binghamton, New York. She found that 70 percent of the children drank between two and five sweetened drinks per day and 42 percent ate two or more fast food meals per week.
Terwilliger concluded that parents and schools may unintentionally make decisions that endanger their children’s health. For instance, parents worried about germs might tell their children not to drink water out of the drinking fountain. As a result, children drink sugary juices and sodas instead of water. Likewise, schools concerned about their students’ academic performance often reduce or eliminate gym classes. As a result of these and other practices, Terwilliger predicts that children growing up today will not live as long or as healthfully as their parents.
California Students Flunk Fitness Tests: California students are continuing to perform poorly on fitness tests. Students were tested in six areas: aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength, trunk extensor strength, upper body strength and flexibility. According to the study, less than 40 percent of students in grades five, seven and nine tested at “healthy” levels. In order to improve these numbers, the California State Superintendent of Public schools announced a new statewide initiative, California Action for Healthy Kids.
Obese Children and Teens Risk Heart Disease: Obese children and teens are more likely to develop heart disease, according to a study conducted at the Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, California. Researchers found that older teens showed signs of insulin resistance that can lead to diabetes as well as inflammation and oxidative stress, which often leads to blood vessel damage. Even though the teens were developing heart disease, they experienced no warning signs—they felt fine. Dr. Ashutosh Lal, head researcher of the study, stressed the importance of immediate intervention for these children to prevent long term, nonreversible heart disease.
Mexico Restricts Sale of Junk Food in Schools: At the start of the new year, officials in Mexico, the fattest country in the world, took action to help children trim down. Government leaders were prompted to act by alarming statistics: one in three children is overweight or obese. To combat the growing epidemic of obesity, the Mexican officials implemented measures to limit the amount of junk food available for purchase in schools. Among the changes—soft drinks were banned and fried foods were eliminated from school menus.
The good news is that all of the conditions leading to obesity among children and adults are reversible. The only question is whether we have the collective will, as we did with the precedent-setting anti-tobacco campaign, to take action before further harm is done to the health of at-risk children and young adults. Until then, just as the widespread use of tobacco did, the epidemic of obesity will continue to take its toll. We can, however, be confident that habits and social norms will change once we make a non-negotiable commitment to promoting the health of future generations.