October 24th, 2008
02:57 PM ET

Fighting the heavy burden of overweight children

By Saundra Young
CNN Medical Senior Producer

The statistics are staggering. One in three of America’s children carry this heavy burden: being overweight or obese.

In case you were wondering just how serious this problem is, Acting Surgeon General Dr. Steven Galson says the number of children affected between 6 and 11 years old has tripled since 1980. Today 9 million children in this country are overweight or obese. That's one in three.

Surgeons general from the last four administrations gathered this week in Washington to address the nation's childhood obesity epidemic. Drs. C. Everett Koop, Antonia Novello, David Satcher and Richard Carmona were also joined by two former "acting" surgeons general and Galson. They talked about how dire the situation is and what it will take to turn it around.

"Childhood overweight and obesity are among the foremost health challenges of our time," Galson said. "Their effects permeate the United States’ health care system and will do so for decades to come. Their implications for health care policy and for health justice are enormous. So are the costs. Billions of dollars in health-care costs that will impact our entire country for the foreseeable future if we cannot turn this tide around."

The picture painted here was not pretty. And while this problem cuts across all of society, Novello, who was surgeon general under President George H.W. Bush, said minority and disadvantaged children suffer disproportionately.

We know obesity has emotional, social and physical consequences. Children are already seeing them with the early onset of many diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, including high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and abnormal glucose tolerance. According to Glason, 61 percent of obese children between 5 and 10 years old have 1 or more risk factors for heart disease already!

Koop, surgeon general during the Reagan administration, gave this warning: "If we continue on the present trajectories, obesity will replace tobacco as the Number One preventable cause of death in the United States."

Carmona, the current President Bush's former surgeon general, says the social implications of being overweight are also painful. "The psychological ramifications of being obese as a child and not going to the dance, not being able to play athletics, which we often gloss by but yet are huge if you are that child that's being ostracized or marginalized because of your obesity problem."

Perhaps even more startling, Carmona says this epidemic could turn out to be a national security issue. "Because where will those soldiers and sailors and policemen and firemen come from in the next generation that have to protect our nation, if we are telling you today that this cohort of young men and women going forward will not be physically fit and able to accept those positions to protect community and the nation."

All agreed that the challenge is monumental, that everyone must pull together - parents, educators, youth, doctors, the food industry, government, even the news media. Galson has been traveling across the country on a "healthy youth for healthy future” tour the past year, having discussions and looking at solutions. His message? "Get and stay active, eat nutritiously and encourage young people to make healthy choices."

He says reversing the cycle will be complex. Inaction is not an option; children overweight before the age of 8 are at greater risk of obesity as an adult.

Two weeks ago the Department of Health and Human Services released the first "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans." It tells you how much physical activity you need daily, and ways to get it. The agency recommended that children and adolescents get an hour or more a day.

A surgeon general during the Clinton administration, Satcher, says there have been some successes, such as the wellness policy passed by Congress in 2004. That legislation says if a school gets funds for free breakfast or lunch – -which most public schools do–that school has to have a wellness policy in place dealing with physical activity and nutrition.

But there are successes and there are setbacks.

An epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Carmona for the first time in history, this could be the first generation of children that lives shorter lives than their parents.
All for something entirely preventable.

Are we doing enough? Or have we all been sitting idly by? What more can we do to get our kids back on the road to good health and fitness?

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