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Forum addresses growth in childhood obesity

 

Carolyn Poirot

cpoirot@bizpress.net

 

Obesity is costing this country $190.2 billion each year, including $4.3 billion in absenteeism in the workforce, Steven Kelder said in his keynote address at the April 4-5  North Texas Health Forum, which focused on childhood obesity.

About 2.5 million U.S. children are severely overweight.

Of young people 12 to 20, more than 6 percent are “morbidly overweight or grossly overweight,” and most of them are not going to lose that extra weight any time soon, Kelder said.

“Twenty-seven percent of Army recruits are ineligible to serve simply because they are overweight,” he pointed out.

 Kelder is co-director of the Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas at Austin. He spoke at the opening session of the sixth annual North Texas Health Forum, sponsored by the School of Public Health at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

“Bariatric surgeons are treating kids less than 10 years old,” Kelder said. The information was followed by an audible gasp from the audience of UNTHSC students, teachers, nutritionists and other health care providers and community leaders attending the forum.

Studies show that children are exposed to 21 minutes of unhealthful ads  each day and should have 16.6 minutes of nutrition education every day (8.3 minutes at the minimum) to counter that advertising, Kelder said. Most schools in Texas actually provide an average of only 1.3 minutes of nutrition education per day, he said.

To help limit the consumption of sugary beverages and foods of minimal nutritional value, Kelder and several other forum speakers voiced support for state legislation, including laws that would raise taxes on such food and beverages. They also are advocating for laws requiring more nutrition education as well as physical education and physical activity at all grade levels in Texas public schools and at licensed day care centers.

Obesity is second only to tobacco as a leading cause of illness in this country, said Richard Kurz, dean of the School of Public Health at UNTHSC and a member of Tarrant County Public Health’s Obesity Prevention Policy Council. The council is charged with reviewing public policies to determine their effect on health.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price opened the April 5 sessions with a discussion of FitWorth Healthy City Initiative, which was launched in September and has already reached 27,000 students in 80 Fort Worth schools. 

“Public health means economic development,” the mayor noted. “Public health is good economic health. When businesses are considering moving here, they want to know about the health of our community. … Health drives business and has a direct relationship to learning.”

Unfortunately, 50 percent of the 81,000 children in the Fort Worth Independent School District are overweight and at risk of obesity-related diseases, Price noted.

“Health and fitness and wellness are learned activities,” she said. “Our target [with FitWorth] was third to eighth graders in FWISD. Our estimate was that we would reach 5,000 to 6,000 Fort Worth students. We ended up with 27,000 … that we are tracking to be sure they get 90 minutes of activity a day.”

FitWorth is a public/private partnership established with a $250,000 grant from Oncor Energy. A side effect of the program is that parents have gotten involved, not only in their children’s health but in their communities, Price said.

“They have learned how easy it is to take a 15-minute walk every day. … It doesn’t take any special gear,” she said, and as few as 2,000 extra steps each day can promote weight loss.

Risa Wilkerson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, program officer for Health Kids, Healthy Communities and project officer for Active Living by Design, also spoke at the April 5 sessions. She encourages community-based partnerships that focus on promoting active living and healthful eating.

She and all the speakers highlighted the importance of the National Institute of Medicine’s recommendations for “Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention.”

Recommendations include:

• Integrate physical activity every day in every way.

• Make healthful food and beverages available everywhere and market what matters for a healthy life.

• Promote, provide and support community programs designed to increase physical activity. (The goal should be 60 minutes daily for normal-weight people, 90 minutes if overweight.)

• Adopt physical activity requirements for licensed child care providers. (Young children should average 15 minutes of active play every hour.)

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