Vital Signs - Hope in the fight against childhood obesityApril 14, 2013
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Childhood obesity is still a catastrophic problem of staggering proportions, but for the first time in the 15 years I have been reporting on the subject, there seems to be a ray of hope focused on the problem.
The discouraging fact is that obesity has been crushing this country since the mid-1980s and has been at the “crisis stage” for more than 20 years now.
Public health officials have been calling it an “epidemic” for most of that time, but tragically, obesity has become engrained in our way of life.
Here in Texas, we have been working on strategic plans to prevent obesity since at least the year 2000, when the Centers for Disease Control awarded the Texas Department of Health a three-year grant “to support nutrition and physical activity programs to prevent obesity and related chronic diseases.”
But in recent years the focus has been on our children and the fact that about 2.5 million of them, ages 12 to 20, are morbidly overweight and that has been a real call to action, finally.
Dr. Eduardo Sanchez was Texas commissioner of health when the first statewide strategic plan was filed in 2003 and the first follow-up plans came out in 2005, calling for families, community organizations, local governments, worksites, schools and child care centers, the health care industry, state government and statewide organizations to work together to make healthful eating and physical activity easy choices for everyone.
Sanchez has more recently served as director of the National Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity, another group very concerned with the problem.
Recently Sanchez directed a community panel representing Tarrant County schools, the medical community and the public health sector at the University of North Texas Health Science Center’s sixth annual North Texas Health Forum.
Sanchez, Tarrant County Public Health Director Lou Brewer and Georgie Roberts, director of health and physical education for the Fort Worth Independent School District, all expressed hope of finally getting a handle on the problem. And they all seemed to give Mayor Betsy Price a lot of the credit for that.
“She gets it,” Sanchez said after Price’s spirited presentation on FitWorth – the mayor’s grassroots initiative to promote outdoor events, team competitions and wellness challenges and more specifically to track eating habits, water consumption and movement activities of 27,000 students in the third and eighth grades at 80 schools in the Fort Worth ISD.
Price was praised for her vision and foresight and especially for the way she models healthy behavior every day in her public and personal activities and choices.
Price says health, fitness and wellness are learned activities. She thanked public health and school officials for their roll in making Fort Worth a healthier place to live, learn and work.
“The momentum is going on this,” Roberts said. “FitWorth is promoting healthy minds and bodies. … Modeling behavior is critical, and the mayor is modeling the behavior.”
Roberts called for state regulations requiring health and physical education classes at every grade level and restrictions on sugary beverages and junk food with little nutritional value in every public school and in all registered preschool and child care facilities.
“We should demand and expect quality PE in kindergarten through 12th grade. … ‘You cannot educate a child who is not healthy, and you cannot keep a child healthy who is not educated,’” Roberts said, quoting Dr. Jocelyn Elders, a pediatrician and former surgeon general of the United States.
Roberts told me after the two-day series of programs that she, too, had been feeling discouraged because of the lack of good results from all the community efforts to stem the obesity epidemic over the last 20 years, and that she, too, feels more hopeful than ever.
The obesity epidemic has finally hit a plateau, according to data from the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination survey, and children in this country are consuming fewer calories than a decade ago.
That is definitely a good move in the right direction even though the CDC still lists two-thirds of the population of the United States as overweight.
“We have a long way to go and a lot to do,” Brewer said at the forum.
But there are very good reasons for hope, such as first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, Price’s FitWorth, and especially the fact that families, communities, local government, worksites, schools, child care centers, the health care industry, state government and state-backed organizations are finally working together to make healthful eating and physical activity easy choices.