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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?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. GF, Los Angeles

    This all comes down to personal responsibility and parents. The government nor the schools should not have to spend money on programs to keep kids from becoming overweight. The education is already there regarding diet. Take away the computer and video games and make kids play outside and walk to school and you'll see them shrink down in size.

    October 24, 2008 at 18:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. grace

    We have all been "sitting idly" by, quite literally is what the problem is.

    I'm not that old but when I was a kid, we used to play outside, ride bikes, go swimming, climb trees, sell lemonade, and walk home from school or the bus stop. Now my coworkers tell me that they're kids are bored if they don't have video games.

    Also, we used to have home cooked meals almost every day, and now people's lifestyles is the opposite. Houses have gotten bigger while yards have gotten smaller or nonexistent. In the short time since I was a kid, every last patch of hillside, trees, rocks, and grass has been built over, leaving kids with not much to do but play video games.

    I honestly think that we need to bring back some form of "home economics" and "shop class" into schools, where kids learn the basics of nutrition, cooking, household budgeting, and how to work with physical objects. In biology class, why do we teach about anatomy and metabolism, but not about nutrition? Why do we teach botany but nobody would have a clue how to grow a vegetable garden?

    October 25, 2008 at 01:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Terry

    My son was considered overweight between age 11 and 14, topping off at a weight of about 150 pounds at 5"4". The summer before age 15 his feet grew 2-inches and out of nowhere it seemed I was looking up at a young man who was more than two inches taller. All of a sudden the 150 pounds seemed to fit his frame. Additionally, I saw pictures of my husband around the same age, looking very chunky, and as well he had a summer of growth similar to my sons. My son was not involved in sports at all, loved video games and was an avid reader at the time. Not at all considered active. We had a dog at the time that he loved and would go outside and play with him, he rode his bike alot to hang out with his friends in the summer. My point is that I never put him on a diet, I tried to instill good eating habits, but adolescent boys generally have a ferocious appetite, and he did, His body eventually caught up with it. So before you consider your child obese and take drastic action, consider letting nature take it's course, you might be surprised. Today, he is an Iraq Vet, he spent alot of time at the gym, knowing that he needed to be in good physical shape to endure combat over there. That 150 pounds is in a 5'11" muscular frame, and he's in the best shape of his life!

    October 25, 2008 at 07:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Lauren R.

    What can we do? Well, for starters we can bring back gym class, and stop giving excuses to kids (and their parents) for not participating. We can stop ignoring lazy parents who use food and video games to raise their children. We can stop giving subsidies to farmers for high fructose corn syrup. We can take the vending machines out of the schools altogether. We can, we can, we can...but we probably won't, because as a society, until we can and DO stop thinking of overweight kids as "somebody else's problem", the buck'll just get passed, and passed, and passed.

    October 25, 2008 at 21:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Peggy Carey

    Helping a friend in his campground last summer, I was shocked to see the number of obese adults AND children. My regular job is not so publicly oriented, and I frankly had not noticed. I also noticed that the children, despite being camping in one of the most beautiful areas in our country, did not "play". They went into the arcade and played video games, or sat in huge campers and played on their computers or televisions. (One European visitor commented that the campers were bigger than many European homes).

    Most distressing, as a writer, I often find myself wandering off to a local coffeehouse (with a well known name) in the afternoon, just for a change of pace; there I witness what I believe is an increasing phenomena. A mother comes in with her child and orders a non-fat, no sugar, decaf drink for herself, then allows the child to order a chocolate bundt cake and a frappacino as an after school snack. Mom then asks for several "bites" or "tastes". This is not isolated, I have witnessed the same behavior at McDonalds, with Big Macs and shakes.

    My mother offered us an orange or exactly three graham crackers and milk for after school snacks. It may have been the fact that she had six kids to feed, but, it seems to me, she was wise ahead of her time.

    October 26, 2008 at 22:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. BK

    I am a mom to 2 kids and one of those really health conscious people. I sub in the school district sometimes and am amazed at what the kids eat! I feel appalled at the food kids consume- packaged foods, candy for snacks? How are they ever going to study and learn without quality foods supplying brain food? The quality of the lunch at school- the less said the better. My heart goes out to these kids. It's not fair. How does a person like me who has no formal training in nutrition but is very much aware of the importance of eating right for kids go about making a difference? It bothers me tremendously and would like to be able to do something to combat this.

    October 26, 2008 at 23:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. mark

    It's ironic that we have more fitness gyms around the country than ever before yet our society is getting fatter than ever before. People need to LEARN how to eat more properly. And the info is not going to come to your doorstep. Seek the knowledge on your own. And on the last note. The parents have a big role in how their kids eat, so they are at fault as well. Stop making excuses.

    October 27, 2008 at 00:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. M

    It's a joke to expect school programs to beat out parenting in determining what kids eat. I remember going to school and learning about the food groups, then coming home to dinners of frozen pot pies or fried chicken and french fries. I knew what I was *supposed* to eat, and I wanted to eat it, but it simply wasn't available. What's a kid supposed to do if her parents don't buy nutritious foods?

    I lost 40 lbs within the first three years of college, when I was finally able to control my own eating habits. But most people's eating habits are long since set by that point, and they're reluctant to change them. Parents need to make sacrifices, even if it means giving up some "old" family recipes or traditions (I guarantee our great-grandparents didn't eat this way!), and make some changes for their children's sake.

    October 27, 2008 at 13:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Alexandretta

    Even in tough economic times, it is still possible to consume healthy foods.

    We have three major grocery store chains in our one city alone: Shaws, Stop n Shop and Hannaford. I store hop for the sales that target the fruits, vegetables, poultry and non-dairy items (Im allergic to dairy). If one store has red peppers for 1.99/lb versus 3.49/lb.. gee, guess where Im going?

    I was actually put in a corner once by a manager of Shaws asking me why am I reading his two other competitor's fliers.. I told him the truth: Your store doesnt have the lowest price, so Im taking notes on what to get at the other store. He was ANGERED by that. I couldnt believe he was angry with me!? I told him "hey, lets face it, you have some things that they dont, that are on sale, and you should be THANKFUL that I am still here, but keep up with your attitude, I will gladly pay the higher price at the other stores because clearly you dont care about how families have to budget!"... His store had a brand of Non-Dairy 'ice-cream' that was 2.00 cheaper than Hannaford, and almost 3 dollars cheaper than Stop n Shop... I was prepared to buy 3 and be set for 3 months. So, after he had his temper tantrum, I put the non-dairy items back and started to put everything away that was in my cart....

    He came over and gave me a Gift Certificate good for $30.00. I told him I didnt want his Gift Card... when he said he was trying to apologize, I told him "thats not the way to apologize to people by 'buying' them."... Yeah, I could have used that 30.00, but I came in with a paycheck, capable of purchasing food. How many families are out there struggling who he could have given that to instead? He just didnt get it... I wasnt trying to watch money, I was watching for the sales... I left the store.

    By the way, dont forget to take advantage of your local Asian grocery stores.. sometimes you get the BEST deals there and you can order in bulk at a GREAT price!

    October 28, 2008 at 06:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Amelia

    I think a lot of this talk is alarmist. Many people don't understand that for young kids (under age 10-11) the difference between normal and obese is often under ten pounds. While it is important to teach children healthy eating habits (lots of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, healthy protein, etc) it is also important to understand that growth charts and BMI ranges, especially for children, are averages, not absolute measures of fitness. The most important thing is to make sure kids eat a varied diet, find something physically active they find fun and accept that we come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Some children are naturally going to tend towards being overweight and some will tend towards being underweight. These tendencies are by and large genetically and metabolically driven – putting a value judgment on a kids weight (you are fat because you are lazy) is terrible for their self esteem, and lowered self esteem drives many kids to disordered eating in the first place.

    October 29, 2008 at 16:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Dora

    I personally am fed up with the schools and other parents who practice no dilligence when it comes to diet. I pack my children's school lunch because the menu at the school is an abomination. But it is very interesting to see what other parent's pack; "Lunchables" frozez PB&J sandwhiches filled with preservatives and lord knows what else; phony "juice" boxes and on and on. There are 9 year old girls in my daughters class who have to wear bras. It's just gross. My son thinks we are the pits because we haven't bought the Wii and all that other garbage video game. I told him he'd thank us one day. It is the parents fault coupled with the horrible government school menus. Honestly, I limit how much time my kids spend time with their fat friends; because the same thing always happens; they are lured indoors where they watch t.v. and eat junk while the fat kids parents let it happen. Allowing your child to get fat is abusive and lazy.

    October 30, 2008 at 10:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Lily

    Let's talk about the poor for a moment.

    The numbers of the poor in this country (I am using below $12,000. per year) do we have in this country? In the 10s of millions - and that was before our economy tanked.....and many of the 'middle class' and even the formerly 'well-to-do' are now discovering what the local food shelf looks like from the perspective of an 'insider'.

    I was raised by a single mother, and because she was very ill, it was my responsibility to do the family shopping from the age of eight. My mother trained me well - I would walk to the local grocery and stock up on canned goods, sale items, lots of pasta (cheap), and if there was enough, occasionally I could get some hamburger or other 'cheap' cuts of fresh meat.....that was a real treat...then walk home.

    My five-year-old sister was very quiet, but would occasionally point to say, a small bag of potato chips, and rarely, I would nod okay........and I will never forget when some old biddy in line behind us started yelling at us for buying potato chips with food stamps, something HER taxes were paying for, and a snack that good-for-nothing, lazy people like us didn't earn or deserve This was said to eight-year-old and five-year-old children.

    I cannot tell you how often before that we had people looking over our purchases, heaving great sighs, or asking us where our good-for-nothing parents were. But on that day, with the woman I mentioned above, I snapped. I screamed at her and the fact that she had a cart full of delicacies like ice cream, steak, fresh fruits and vegetables, and snacks galore. The last thing I said was that the least she could do was share some of her ice cream with my sister, which made her even angrier. We left that small neighborhood grocery and never returned. After that incident, mother ordered groceries by phone and had them delivered - which was fortunately a free service in those days for the disabled.

    I put myself through college as an adult, and had a little more in earnings when I found myself the single mother of three toddlers. Most of the time we had just enough, but on the occasions when we didn't, we had to use food stamps........and surprise, surprise....nothing had changed. I refused to take my children shopping at those times, because of the nasty remarks and innuendos made by others, who were usually wearing gold and diamond jewelry, with shopping carts filled with items I'd only dreamed of buying.

    Now, all three of my children have worked their way through college......I worked three jobs (one as a substitute teacher), and became permanently disabled due to a work injury on one of the other jobs. MY SSDI is now $600, per month.....for EVERYTHING.

    Why are children and adults obese? I am sure them are are some people out there who eat out 'way too often or buy lots of fattening snacks. But if you are really poor, you live on pasta, cheap soups, cheap bread, and canned fruits and vegetables. This is NOT a slimming diet.

    And for all of us who, in these terrible economic times, must go to a food shelf to survive, the food provided is......boxed pasta, reg. pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, boxed mixes for pancakes, breads, etc. If we are really lucky, they might have a few fresh items like potatoes, moldy tomatoes or oranges, maybe overripe bananas - basically other people's castoffs.

    To have a diet rich in nutrients and low in fats, that include fresh produce, etc., are something only the more wealthy can afford.

    In a way, I find a certain amount of poetic justice in our current economic conditions........we were shunned for years as lazy, incompetent, uneducated..........and now, many Americans are finding that being poor, losing your home, losing your job, and not having money for bills can happen to anybody....not to mention, we have no control over illnesses that happen to all.

    October 30, 2008 at 12:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. LEB

    The problem of obese children won't be solved until the problem of obese ADULTS is solved. In an effort to ensure that every citizen had adequate affordable calories (I won't call if "food"), the government a few decades back started giving ludicrous subsidies to corn, wheat, and soy farmers. The result is that we are overwhelmed with the processed goods that consist of these staples, and all the cheap calories have gone to our waistlines!

    The idea was to make it so that every family could afford to eat. Now pretty much every family can, but have we increased the average family's ability to eat WELL? Emaciation was once the tell-tale sign of poverty, but now, ironically, obesity is a sign that a person struggles financially. And the rich people aren't portly and rotund any more... they're fit and lean!

    There are far more cultural factors to consider (ie, less homecooked meals because Mom now works and Dad hasn't picked up the slack), but the primary problem is the abundance of cheap calories that are poor in nutrition. The government tried to fix the problem, and the result is that we're fed, but we're unhealthy and fat. It's up to individuals to prioritize healthy eating over other concerns - in other words, to push aside the Easy Mac and Krispie Creams, and pick up and apple instead.

    October 30, 2008 at 19:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. dana

    Food needs to stop being marketed directly to children. The food /advertising industry has turned eating into a fun activity and in reality it is a necessary function for life. When I go to the grocery store and see a whole isle of cookies or a whole isle of chips it seems like overkill. If you've ever read the side of an Oscar Meyer lunchable, you would notice that the saturated fat at sodium are extremely excessive, kids beg for this stuff........

    October 31, 2008 at 03:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Ann

    I agree with GF in Los Angeles. It's not the responsibility of government or schools to ensure that our children our physically fit and the education is there. Pumping money into new programs isn't the answer.

    It's a matter of personal choice. Basic common sense tells you that eating too much, eating unhealthy foods, and lack of exercise leads to obesity. Yes, there's a McDonald's and a Starbucks on every corner but that doesn't mean you have to eat there every day.

    On my street, most of the kids are overweight. Their parents are overweight. We live in an area where a majority of the student population at my daughter's school qualifies for free/reduced lunches. The school serves carnival food: nachos, corn dogs, pizza, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets on a regular basis. Is that a healthy selection?

    Getting back on the road to good health and fitness requires getting back to the basics of sensible nutrition and meal planning, seeking ways to be active and setting the example for your children.

    At our house, sweets are kept to a minimum. I plan weekly meals, shop with my daughter and explain the importance of good nutrition. We rarely eat fast food. We eat meals together. My husband and I exercise regularly and my daughter has always been active. She doesn't have video games and she plays outside. We snack on fruit, air popped popcorn, yogurt, and other healthy foods. Good health is a choice you make every day for you and your family.

    October 31, 2008 at 09:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Grace L.

    If you can't afford to eat healthy, news flash: Exercise is free.

    October 31, 2008 at 13:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Tony Schwartz

    I work with young athletes on a daily basis and it is amazing how out-of-shape even the supposedly "athletic" population is.

    It is readily apparent that many of these kids have simply not spent the time playing sports or doing other physical activities that were once commonplace.

    This not only causes weight problems, but leaves these children with inadequate motor skills for the rest of their lives. This prevents them from participating successfully in any sport which pushes them further down the slippery slope to physical inactivity.

    Something must be done to change our entire culture or this problem will only continue to get worse.

    Play hard,
    Tony Schwartz
    htttp://blog.AthleticMuscleBuilding.com

    November 7, 2008 at 15:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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