Point of View

Reversing the spread of childhood obesity

October 8, 2012 

The obesity epidemic continues to spread across North Carolina, leaving in its wake chronic disease, rising health care costs and reduced quality of life. Nearly two-thirds of adults in our state are either overweight or obese. Over the last 10 years, the obesity rate among adults has increased by approximately 40 percent. The news is not good for our children either, and we must pay attention and move toward action.

According to the Trust for America’s Health, North Carolina ranked 11th in the nation for childhood obesity in 2011. The state Division of Public Health reports that obesity impacts one in four of our children. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults. They are more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol and to develop Type 2 diabetes.

Even our youngest children are showing the effects of the rise in obesity. According to the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance Study, 31.1 percent of low-income children ages 2 to 4 in North Carolina were overweight or obese in 2009, compared to 21.6 percent in 1990. Approximately one out of every six young children was overweight (having a BMI in the 85-95th percentile) in 2009, and a similar proportion of children were obese (having a BMI greater than the 95th percentile). Hispanic and American Indian children aged 2 to 4 years have the highest rates of obesity.

So after all of those grim numbers, where can we find hope? There have been a number of innovative programs developed across North Carolina to address the critical issue of childhood obesity. Progress has been made, but now we recognize that we must begin to attack this problem at the very earliest ages, ensuring all of our children learn about and experience nutrition, physical activity and good health from the very start.

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation has been one of the leaders in these efforts, with support of initiatives such as Be Active Kids, Preventing Obesity by Design and the Nutrition and Physical Activity Self Assessment for Child Care. Most recently, the foundation has collaborated with the North Carolina Partnership for Children on Shape NC, an initiative that creates improved nutrition and physical activity practices in child care settings, healthier play environments and a state-level policy blueprint to impact the health of young children.

The North Carolina Institute of Medicine, in partnership with the Blue Cross foundation and the Partnership for Children, has convened a task force aimed at reducing early childhood obesity, focusing on children from birth to 5. The task force is made up of more than 70 clinical, community and public policy experts from across the state, and it is led by co-chairs Kathy Higgins, president of the Blue Cross foundation; and Dr. Olson Huff, chair of the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Partnership for Children.

Together, these leaders are developing a blueprint that identifies partners, specific steps and resources needed to implement a science-backed plan to improve the health of young children.

We know there is no single answer for every family or every community that can “solve” the problem of early childhood obesity. Instead, we need thoughtful, evidence-based initiatives at a variety of levels to meet different needs and support change.

For example, parents and expecting parents need to be educated on breastfeeding, child nutrition and physical activity. We need to give them the information and also the support to be successful.

Many of our children spend the majority of their days in child care centers, and we must help them create the programming to keep kids active and healthy. An important part of that effort has to be educating caregivers so they have the tools to teach kids good habits.

Health care providers must be enlisted to collect accurate data, assist in educating parents and provide good feedback to families.

Finally, insurance plans and other health organizations can help by creating incentives for obesity prevention activities for all ages.

Our final report is scheduled for release at the beginning of 2013. We look forward to sharing it with our state’s leaders and citizens. We’ll need your help to make it a reality and make an impact on our children’s lives.

We must all work together to attack the childhood obesity epidemic. We will need leadership and commitment from all areas – government, policy leaders, the private sector, doctors and parents. The costs, to our children and to our health system, are too great to ignore. The health of our children and our state depends on our success.

Pam Silberman is president of the North Carolina Institute of Medicine.

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