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Can we beat childhood obesity?

Perhaps the hottest of all hot topics in the worlds of health and nutrition is childhood obesity. When about a third of U.S. kids are overweight or obese, and with the knowledge that obesity can contribute to myriad diseases and conditions including top killers such as heart disease and diabetes, it's clear something has to be done.

But what, exactly?

Google "childhood obesity" and you'll see that everybody and his brother has a plan to beat the epidemic.

Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity her signature issue. Her Let's Move campaign offers concrete strategies for virtually eliminating obesity among children and calls on all sectors of society, from parents and schools to food manufacturers and kids themselves, to do their part.

Jamie Oliver's got his Food Revolution, which aims in part to teach kids how to make better choices in the school cafeteria. The District of Columbia just paved the way for passage of a "soda tax" to discourage kids' and adults' consumption of highly sweetened beverages; the revenue is to support school health programs.

Yesterday I blogged about a study suggesting that configuring neighborhoods in such a way that teens can walk or bike to their destinations can help those teens maintain a healthy weight. And, as I write in this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column, some experts believe that making a modernized home economics class mandatory for all children would foster nutrition literacy and help kids learn to eat more healthfully.

All these plans are enough to make my fat head spin.

It's encouraging to see so much thought and energy aimed at this problem. But the cynic in me is, well, cynical. Will any of these plans make a dent? Will the weight-management help get to the kids who need it most, and will they be receptive? Will everyone who needs to be on board get on board?

For the sake of our kids and their kids to come, I hope these efforts have traction. Let's just say the proof will be in the pudding.

Do you think these anti-childhood obesity campaigns will make a difference? Please vote in today's poll.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 1, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Childhood obesity , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity , Prevention  
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I doubt it.

Several years ago I read an article in the Atlantic Monthly about an intervention program for young mothers. The director of the program noted that overfeeding a baby is a way to quiet it. Fat babies sleep more and to a young mother this is a method of managing a baby.

So the stage is set for life long overeating.

Upper class mothers slog through the early months warned against early solids. They have leave from jobs and partners to support them so a baby who is up at all hours for the next feeding is less of a burden.

I think overeating has cultural and behavioral origins that need addressing, but it's more than just safe places to ride bikes.

Posted by: RedBird27 | June 1, 2010 7:20 AM | Report abuse

Knowledge alone cannot alter behavior. The efforts at curbing the childhood obesity epidemic are heartfelt, but misguided to some extent. If we want children (and their parents and caregivers) to make lasting changes, campaigns need to do more than just provide information - they need to help families make lasting behavior changes. This is more challenging, because behavior change takes time and what everyone wants is an instant fix. But there are existing programs focused on behavior change and they are working. The DHHS Office on Women's Health has a 10-week behavior change program to prevent obesity - BodyWorks. The program has been implemented in hundreds of communities across the country and is slowly making a difference.

Posted by: amanda53 | June 1, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Because we have eliminated food education (we used to call it "Home Economics" before it became a politically incorrect term) and mandatory physical aerobic activity from nearly all schools in the US (except for IL), we have an entire generation, perhaps two, of young adults and teens who have no idea what it means to have a healthy diet. A well constructed and funded public education campaign will help, but we need to deemphasize screen time in schools AND at home and bring back science based nutrition education and active phys ed. It is more complicated than that, of course (e.g., food deserts, etc.), but the current campaigns are self-defeating because they are trying to victimize people and remove the belief that is still prevalent in our society that we are individually responsible for what we eat. Until we do that, and then provide them with the education to make wise choices, no public education campaign will succeed.

Posted by: Exile_in_Philly | June 1, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

I just finished reading Harriet Brown's blog on The Huffington Post, and I think she has a point: this campaign could backfire and create more of a problem. When the focus is on size and not health, that can lead to even more problems: anorexia, rebellion, gained weight, size discrimination. It's not about how these kids LOOK, it's about where they are with eating and moving, and the whole spectrum of what's involved, including emotional eating and body image, need to be included. I don't see that happening.

Posted by: maggie43 | June 2, 2010 12:13 AM | Report abuse

The District of Columbia did not "pave the way for passage of a 'soda tax'." In fact, the D.C. Council specifically rejected a "soda tax" in favor of a much less onerous extension of the local sales tax to be applied also to soft drinks. Previously, sodas were treated as food and not taxed. Health advocates were mightily disappointed because the proposed excise tax on sodas would have raised the shelf price of soft drinks by 1 cent per ounce, or up to 30 cents per container and perhaps discouraged consumption. The sales tax only shows up on the receipt.

Posted by: euclidarms | June 2, 2010 6:24 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: scoutbono | June 2, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

It won't make a difference because...
You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink, and you can teach a kids responsible eating and excersize habits and they will promptly walk into a convenience store and buy a huge fountain drink. Healthy eating programs last only as long as the kid's willpower. If an adult can't keep his/her cravings in check, will a child? We struggled with my son's weight for years - he was only about 5'6" and pushing 200 lbs at 16. What helped? He was diagnosed with ADD. Granted, the prescription he takes does decrease his appetite somewhat, but the nervous eating, getting something to eat to postpone something he doesn't want to do, eating because he's bored...has been dramatically reduced now that he's receiving the proper dose of medication. This is DEFINANTLY not the cure for every heavy child, but we need to understand there can be underlying causes to obesity as well.

Posted by: gwynny | June 2, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

As a current attendee of public schools I am fairly confident that these efforts will do nothing to stop the onslaught of childhood obesity. The problem is rooted far deeper than most think. The school system works well enough that very few are fat up untill middle school, where apart from a pe class every other day, kids get no physical activity. This is the heart of the problem. I got into aerobic sports, cc, swim, track, but many of my peers did not, this leads to a kind of sloth that begs for weight gain. The standards for pe fall to unbeleivable lows. All that is asked of kids for the so called "conditioning" portion of class is complete a half mile in 11 minutes. Everykid I knew in elementry school could run a mile in that time. Most could do more. Nothing will stop this except for a radical rethink of Phys. Ed. Actually putting kids into some level of discomfort should do wonders.

Posted by: Millennial | June 2, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

How much can we help the children if the parents don't understand, are unable to make their own healthy decisions, or are unable to enforce good habits at home? At the UK schools where Jamie Oliver overhauled the cafeteria food to make the food fresh and healthy, some parents stood at the gates with fast food junk because their little sweetums whined about the change in menu.

Posted by: scisger | June 2, 2010 7:33 PM | Report abuse

As someone who grew up as a fat child, everything starts at home. These tools that the public campaigns may provide (I am still doubtful that it is really anything more than hot air) can only be useful if the parents do it too. I grew up fat because my parents were sedentary so I was sedentary (sedentary for a kid in the 70s which is almost active compared to some kids now), my parents liked large portions and going out to eat so by the age of 7 or 8, I was eating more than adult sized portions. I grew up fat because the high calorie/sugar snacks were so easy to get, not just at home but at school as well. Who didn't want Kool-Aid and soda as well as Doritos, Lay's etc. when they were kids? My parents did some things right, they sent my brother and I away to camp in the summer since they weren't going to be active with us, someone else was and we both lost weight every summer because of that. My generation started the major couch potato trend with large amounts of TV thanks to cable and its many channels and it has intensified with kids under the age of 10 with IPhones, handheld video games, TVs in their bedrooms, etc. Why should a kid go out and play and be active if that hasn't been made to seem like fun to them?

Posted by: Wiggs1 | June 5, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

"the proposed excise tax on sodas would have raised the shelf price of soft drinks by 1 cent per ounce, or up to 30 cents per container and perhaps discouraged consumption."

I know common sense is in short supply, but everybody would have just walked a few feet over the line and bought the soft drinks in Maryland or Virginia.

The whole point of it was to raise revenue, despite what was said to the press.

Posted by: Skeptic1 | June 7, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Exercise in PE class is great, but less than an hour a day of activity isn't going to be enough. We simply eat too much high calorie food at school, at home, at the Sev, fast food outlets, at restaurants - everywhere. A well-planned diet plus moderate to intense activity for several hours per day will keep the kids lean - and a Wii can be both intense and fun.

Posted by: maus92 | June 7, 2010 11:33 PM | Report abuse

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