Around the globe, obesity continues to be a growing problem and the World Obesity Federation (WOF) is sounding the clarion call for urgent government action to combat this issue.
In the United States, more than one-third (36.5%) of U.S. adults have obesity. (CDC). Further, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. This upward trend is happening in the wake of campaigns and government sponsored programs purportedly focusing on reducing the problem.
The statistics are startling and we must act to stem the tide of this dangerous epidemic. The probability of childhood obesity persisting into adulthood is estimated to be 20% at age 4 and 80% by adolescence (Pediatrics Aug 2003 vol 112). In addition, childhood obesity more than doubles the risk of dying before age 55. (N Engl J Med 2010; 362:485-493. February 11, 2010).
If we do not close the gap between prevention and treatment, we are resigning the next generation to a wave of obesity-related health issues.
What can we do?
- We can acknowledge that obesity is a real disease.Thirty years ago, depression was “in your head” and PMS and Menopause did not exist. Now we know these are complex physiological processes that involve chemical imbalances in the body. The same is true about obesity.
- We can become knowledgeable about food. An unhealthy fat cell secretes over 100 chemicals that we know of, the majority of which wreak havoc on the body, cause fatigue, inflammation, and actually increase hunger. We have learned that the right combination of fat, salt and sugar hit the receptors in our brain like heroin, and that folks get withdrawal symptoms if they miss a fast food meal after having it frequently. The food industry knows this, and takes advantage of it. And as we grow, we become more hungry, more addicted, and gain more fat. The fat cell does not know or care about our parents, and it insidiously removes our will power without us knowing.
- We can empower the medical community to treat the problem. In the U.S., our efforts are largely focused on preventing obesity. As a result we have become great at identifying obesity but are at a loss what to do about it. Last month, the Obesity Medical Association (OMA) released a brand new Pediatric Algorithm, which I coauthored. This tool provides evidence based treatment guidelines for physicians. This is a big step in equipping the medical community with the right tools to treat obesity.
- We must partner with our schools. School policies must evolve. We need nutrition classes, recess, Physical Education and Health Education. Teaching children how to live healthy has a two-fold benefit, in that children can be the catalyst that changes their families health habit. We need to start this education in early childhood.
- We need to get honest about corn. Yes, corn, a staple in school lunches and at dinner tables across the country. Corn sugar, liquid sugar and corn syrup may as well be called liquid fat, as that what is turns into in our bodies. If we allow farmers to diversify their crops, and make healthier foods accessible and reasonably priced, we will have less of a battle on our hands.
- We can confront our own weight bias. Have you ever seen an obese child and judged the child or his parents for his weight? I have, before I understood the complexity of the epidemic. Have you sat on the subway or bus a couple of rows back, because you thought that person might “smell,”? Five year olds have- and chose seats next to any other child including those with handicaps before they sat next to the fat child. Sixty percent (60 %) of obese children are victimized by peers, and many schools lack policies to address it.
- We can take action. We are in this together and our collective action can drive change. Advocate for changes in your local school districts. Share the Pediatric Algorithm with your physician. Learn about your food and make healthier choices.
The truth is, childhood obesity has never been about the lack of self-control, willpower, or poor parenting. Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980. There are now 1.5 billion adults and 43 million children under the age of five who are overweight in the world. This trend that has impacted all cultures and races cannot be attributed to “poor parenting.” Let’s stop blaming those who suffer and work together to treat the problem.
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