"Excess weight is commonplace in our society, and it's damaging the health of our kids who are eating more and exercising less. They're getting so large, that they're outgrowing age-appropriate clothing and are at times unable to fit comfortably in classroom chairs. With childhood obesity now ranked as one of the most prominent health concerns in the U.S., we have to address the issue promptly or we risk not being able to reverse this dangerous trend.
As a cardiologist, all too often I see the medical consequences of being obese. Increasingly youngsters now require daily medications to reduce the growing risk of vascular disease produced by obesity. Medications and diagnoses that used to be reserved for adults are now being used in children of younger and younger ages. The rampant rise in risk associated with high blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and "so-called" adult onset (type-2) diabetes are translating into more heart disease, at younger ages. What's more, the psychological and emotional problems associated with obesity compromise the "joy of life" of many kids and reduce their ability to learn and excel in school.
The statistics are frightening. Childhood obesity rates have more than quadrupled in the last 30 years going from four percent to nearly 20 percent in 2008. And obesity-related diseases cost nearly $168.4 billion a year or 16.5 percent of national spending on medical care —a growing price tag this country simply cannot afford. Fewer children are taking part in simple physical activities such as swimming, bike riding, or even walking for short distances. Sedentary behavior coupled with access to high-calorie foods and beverages in school cafeterias and vending machines only exacerbate the problem.
A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois found that calorie-rich beverages, particularly high fat milk, are still widely available in schools. This is in contrast to the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine which urges elementary schools to offer only water, 100 percent juice in 4 ounce servings, and one percent skim milk products outside the school meal program. The bottom line is that students have easy access to high-calorie beverages in environments where they spend most of their day. More emphasis must be placed on initiatives to remove sugar-sweetened beverages from schools and teach youngsters how to eat sensibly and stay active.
Thanks to a landmark agreement between the beverage industry and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a non-profit organization founded by the American Heart Association and William J. Clinton Foundation, we're making progress. There has been an 88 percent decrease in total beverage calories shipped to schools between the first half of the 2004-05 and 2009-10 school years. This is a step in the right direction, but it's only one step. Now there's an opportunity for Congress to strengthen standards for most schools in the country.
Comprehensive nutrition education and increased opportunities for physical activity in schools have proven successful in preventing and reducing obesity. But in order to build a healthy and productive future for kids, our nation's leaders must step up to the plate and pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This legislation, which has already been approved by the U.S. Senate, is currently awaiting a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. The measure would help strike out childhood obesity by improving the nutritional quality of school meals, removing junk food and calorie-rich drinks from vending machines and strengthening school wellness policies. Not only will these provisions help boost children's health, but research shows that kids who are introduced to healthy foods and physical activity early in life have a greater chance of adopting healthy behaviors into adulthood. Healthy, active kids also learn more effectively and achieve more academically.
The promise of today's youth is in our hands and we must band together to ensure swift passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The U.S. Senate has already passed the measure, so the U.S. House of Representatives has the opportunity to send the bill to the President when Congress reconvenes this month. As children continue to weigh in at alarming levels, let's tip the scales in favor of initiatives that will get them back in shape and make the school environment a place that promotes healthy lifestyles with physical as well as academic rewards."
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About the Author:
Dr. Robert DiBianco is an American Heart Association spokesperson and practicing cardiologist. Dr. DiBianco is in a cardiology group practice in suburban Washington DC.