Childhood Obesity: A Growing Epidemic

Eileen Mariano

Even though the HIV virus transferred from monkeys to people in the 1920s, there were eight million people living with the disease by 1990. With no cures yet definitively proven and a steady climb in the number of diagnoses, HIV/AIDS appears to be one of the worst epidemics to ever plague the United States.[i]

However, at the turn of the 21st Century, yet another problem has taken center stage in the battle for the future health and wellbeing of Americans. Over the past few decades, healthcare professionals have grown increasingly concerned with childhood obesity, an epidemic now affecting an unprecedented proportion of the American population.

More than one third of children and adolescents in the United States were overweight or obese in 2008, and that number has not shown any signs of decline.[ii] [iii] In fact, since the 1970’s, the childhood obesity rate has tripled.[iv] As a result of this sharp increase, it is estimated that the generation currently in their childhood will be the first in American history to live shorter lives than their parents.[v]


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Clinically, healthcare providers worry about obesity because it is closely associated with diabetes. Specifically, Type II diabetes may lead to blindness, hypertension, an increased risk of heart problems, and in extreme cases, amputation of digits and limbs. For these reasons, obesity and obesity-related illnesses are the leading cause of death in the United States every year, and it is estimated to shorten lives by an average of twelve years.[vi]

The harm of childhood obesity and diabetes transcends the physical symptoms alone. Those who suffer from obesity are also impacted by social discrimination, to the point where individuals have difficulty finding jobs, participating in activities, and even forming desired relationships.[vii]

At a national level, the obesity epidemic has become “a national security threat” because up to one-quarter of the people trying to join the military are unqualified because of their weight.[viii] In addition, it is estimated that obesity-related complications cost the United States health care system $344 billion dollars a year.[ix]

What is already being done to combat this growing, harmful trend? Steps are being taken on both the local and national levels. Locally, many propositions and social movements have been enacted. According to Christopher Gardner, Associate Director of Nutrition Studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and Associate Professor of Medicine at Stanford University there is room to be optimistic. “It is sometimes very difficult to make a big change. So what people have started to do is play around with little changes, as part of the movement… and I think it’s working,” Gardner explained.

A few examples of the “little changes” that Gardner refers to include efforts from New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, who started an initiative that prohibited the purchase of soda using food stamps in New York[x], and Measure N in California, the first proposed soda tax in the country to appear on a ballot.[xi] Michigan implemented a program called Double Up Food Bucks, an initiative that gives bonus token rewards when people buy fruits and vegetables from farmers markets[xii], and the Santa Clara County Toy Ban, which states that a toy cannot be sold along with a fast food meal unless the meal meets calorie, fat, salt, and sugar content guidelines. Unfortunately, due to specific restrictions and the limited scope of the measure, the ban only affected four restaurants. However, it received national attention and was later implemented by San Francisco and proposed by the state of Kansas.

Nationally, the Obama administration has made strong efforts to curtail the epidemic. In January of 2012, President Obama announced that he would add $3.2 billion to the $11 billion school lunch program. The extra support would be used to “add more fruits and green vegetables to breakfasts and lunches and reduce the amount of salt and fat.” Obama’s subsidies also provide the funding for whole grains, low-fat milk, and the technology to monitor the amount of caloric intake per lunch per student.[xiii] Michelle Obama has also played a significant role in the effort to reduce childhood obesity, claiming that she is “going to continue to do everything that [she] can to focus [her] energy to keep this issue at the forefront of the discussion in this society.”[xiv] Specifically, she established her Let’s Move! initiative, which encourages nutritional foods, increased physical activity, and a healthy start for children. The campaign has launched numerous movements, which include paying restaurant chefs to move to schools, awarding subsidies to schools that start a vegetable garden, and initiating a summer food program that allows children to eat healthfully year-round. The First Lady’s initiatives have encouraged healthier eating and are influencing student lifestyles all over the country.[xv]

But the question remains, are the current local and national level efforts enough to stop an epidemic? Donald Barr, Physician and Associate Professor of Sociology and Human Biology at Stanford University, does not think so. He pointed out, “if you think it’s a problem now, it’s about to be an even bigger one,” which is why local, state, and national level government need to increase their efforts, given the severity of the epidemic.

To put the anti-childhood obesity efforts into perspective, in 2008, the federal government committed to spending $48 billion over the next five years on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment efforts. This aid will affect the 1.2 million people living with HIV in the US.[xvi] There are, comparatively, 9 million obese children. Despite the current local and national efforts to reduce childhood obesity, those initiatives are not sufficient. Preventing the expansion of this epidemic is a crucial, and underappreciated, step toward a healthy future for Americans.

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Donald Barr is a physician and an Associate Professor of Sociology and Human biology at Stanford University. He researches a wide variety of topics, one of which is the social and economic factors contributing to health disparities, and specifically to obesity.

Christopher Gardner is the Director of Nutrition Studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and an Associate Professor of Medicine at Stanford University. He received his PhD from the University of California and now researches dietary intervention and the way that food increases disease risk factors and body weight.

References:

[i] AIDS Timeline. Website. Available at: http://www.avert.org/aids-timeline.htm. Accessed November 11, 2012.

[ii] US Obesity Rate Leveling Off, at About One-Third of Adults. Website. Available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/weightloss/2010-01-13-obesity-rates_N.htm. Accessed November 11, 2012.

[iii] Barr, Donald. MD, PhD. Physician and Associate Professor of Sociology and Human Biology at Stanford University. Interviewed November 9, 2012.

[iv] Childhood Obesity Facts. Website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm. Accessed November 28, 2012.

[v] Childhood Obesity. Website. Available at: http://www.healthiergeneration.org/about.aspx?id=3439. Accessed November 26, 2012.

[vi] US Obesity Rate Leveling Off, at About One-Third of Adults. Website. Available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/weightloss/2010-01-13-obesity-rates_N.htm. Accessed November 11, 2012.

[vii] Gardner, Christopher. PhD. Associate Director of Nutrition Studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and Associate Professor of Medicine at Stanford University. Interviewed November 9, 2012.

[viii] Michelle Obama Agrees: Obesity is ‘Absolutely’ a National Security Threat. Website. Available at: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/michelle-obama-agrees-obesity-is-absolutely-a-national-security-threat/. Accessed November 11, 2012.

[ix] US Obesity Rate Leveling Off, at About One-Third of Adults. Website. Available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/weightloss/2010-01-13-obesity-rates_N.htm. Accessed November 11, 2012.

[x] Gardner, Christopher. PhD. Associate Director of Nutrition Studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and Associate Professor of Medicine at Stanford University. Interviewed November 9, 2012.

[xi] Richmond’s Soda Tax Campaigner. Website. Available at: http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Richmond-s-soda-tax-campaigner-3944783.php. Accessed November 21, 2012.

[xii] Double Up Food Bucks: How it Works. Website. Available at: http://www.doubleupfoodbucks.org/how-it-works. Accessed November 21, 2012.

[xiii] New Rules for School Meals Aim at Reducing Obesity. Website. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/us/politics/new-school-lunch-rules-aimed-at-reducing-obesity.html?_r=1&. Accessed November 11, 2012.

[xiv] Michelle Obama Unveils Anti-Childhood Obesity Action Plan. Website. Available at: http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/05/11/michelle-obama-unveils-anti-childhood-obesity-action-plan/. Accessed November 11, 2012.

[xv] Let’s Move! Website. Available at: http://www.letsmove.gov. Accessed November 11, 2012.

[xvi] AIDS Timeline. Website. Available at: http://www.avert.org/aids-timeline.htm. Accessed November 11, 2012.