The statistics are staggering. Since the 1970s, the number of obese children in the U.S. has quadrupled. Now, more than 23 million children and teenagers ages 2 to 19 are obese or overweight (nearly one in three children), a statistic that has medical experts calling childhood obesity an epidemic. Not only are these children at risk for serious health problems like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even stroke, they are also at risk for mental health problems and substandard learning.
"This is the first generation in the history of our nation to be so unhealthy that their lifespan will be shorter than that of their parents. By not raising awareness and taking steps to reduce obesity, we are securing a devastating fate for our young people," said Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge (OH-11) one of the 18 congressional sponsors who introduced H.R. 339, which proposed the designation of September 2011 as the first national observance of Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.
President Barack Obama officially proclaimed September 2011 and all Septembers moving forward as National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, writing “As a nation, our greatest responsibility is to ensure the well-being of our children. By taking action to address the issue of childhood obesity, we can help America's next generation reach their full potential.”
Now, four years later, Childhood Obesity Awareness Month continues to provide an opportunity for learning about ways to prevent and address this serious health concern.
Childhood obesity has been called “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century,” because it can harm nearly every system in a child’s body. The child’s heart, lungs, muscles, bones, kidneys and digestive tract, as well as the hormones that control blood sugar and puberty, can all be affected – at a time when these body systems are supposed to be growing and developing normally. Obese children also pay a heavy emotional and social toll. Furthermore, youth who are overweight or obese have a good chance of staying overweight or obese as adults, which in turn increases their risk of disease, disability and early death.
Experts have many theories about why there is an obesity problem in the United States. Fast food is a popular target – Americans only spent $6 billion on fast food in 1970, but by 2006, were spending almost $142 billion. Increased reliance on processed food with ingredients like high fructose corn syrup also adds to the nation’s waistline. And, perhaps one of the more insidious culprits is the vast array of electronic devices that kids use regularly. Video games, television, smart phones and personal computers all give kids an easy pass to sedentary activities. Adding to the problem, while physical education used to be a mainstay in public schools, few states now mandate that schools include any sort of physical education in the curriculum.
As healthcare providers, we are often in a position to educate patients and their families about the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. We can advise parents to make sure their children get enough sleep, limit their screen time, get regular exercise and eat an appropriate amount of calories. We can also provide examples of how to substitute higher nutrient, lower calorie foods for junk food.
As part of a larger community, we should insist that physical education and healthy lifestyle habits are taught in our public schools and that everyone has access to affordable healthy food in their neighborhoods.
Working together, states, communities, schools, nurses, doctors, child care providers, and parents can help make healthier food, beverages, and physical activity the easy choice for children and adolescents to help prevent childhood obesity.
Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says, “Every single young person has to be prepared for a very competitive world economy. They have to be at the top of their game, and for that, they need to be healthy. They need proper nutrition and access to healthy meals at school and at home in order to reach their full potential.”