Commentary

Christensen: Combating childhood obesity will take collaborative effort

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMarch 22, 2014 

— If there is one thing Michelle Obama and Aldona Wos can agree on, it is that we have too many obese children.

Obese children usually turn into obese adults, which can lead to heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, stroke, sleep apnea, joint problems, and social and psychological issues – not to mention endless jokes if you should be elected governor of New Jersey and contemplate running for president.

Weight is apparently the only physical characteristic that is still politically correct to ridicule.

Like cigarette smoking and drinking, obesity is a leading cause of preventable diseases. Fighting obesity is a cost-effective way to sharply reduce health care costs by keeping more people healthy in the first place.

Wos, the state’s secretary of health and human services, estimates that obesity costs the state economy $17 billion per year in medical costs and lost productivity.

Such costs are why first lady Obama has been leading an effort to get young people to eat better and exercise more, and why Wos was one of the key speakers at a state childhood obesity summit last week in Cary.

Bipartisan issue

Obama may be a Democrat and Wos a Republican, but this is an issue that cuts across party lines. Conservative Republican Mike Huckabee, when he was governor of Arkansas, made it one of his central concerns. Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina has been outspoken on behalf of efforts to encourage physical activity to reduce childhood obesity.

There can be political blowback. During the 2012 election, I sat in on a focus group with undecided women and heard one mother express resentment toward Obama’s efforts to get children to eat better. She saw it as big government nannyism interfering with her God-given right to feed her children french fries and Big Macs.

The state effort is not about forcing people to eat healthy, but encouraging them to do so.

As Wos noted, it should be a big issue in North Carolina, where the obesity rate among children ages 2 to 4 has more than doubled from 6.9 percent in 1981 to 15.4 percent in 2011.

The United States had the highest obesity rate in the world until ceding that honor to Mexico last year. North Carolina ranked 33rd in obesity among the states (with 50th being the worst.) Almost one-third of North Carolinians are obese. Generally, the poorer the state, the worse the obesity problem.

Obesity cuts across all demographic lines, but it is particularly high among African-Americans. The causes include too many fried foods, too few healthy vegetables and not enough physical activity.

The summit, which was put on by the N.C. Institute of Medicine and funded by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, highlighted the work of a task force that brought together 160 parents, child care providers, health professionals and experts to study childhood obesity in the state.

No quick solutions

Childhood obesity is a complicated problem – some of it tied in with larger issues of working mothers who live on the edge of poverty. The task force is proposing a series of measures including better training of health care professionals, more activity in child care settings and more reliance on breast-feeding.

The summit also heard about a collaborative three-year project that shows some promise, Shape NC, which worked with children in child care centers that are part of the Smart Start program. That program, sponsored by a $3 million grant from the Blue Cross Foundation, helped improve the eating habits of 1,000 young children across the state.

But as Wos said, the obesity epidemic didn’t occur suddenly, and it will not be solved quickly. It will take the work of public and private agencies and individuals.

“We will not stem the tide with only state or federal solutions,” Wos said. “That will not work. All of this starts with personal responsibility and good parenting. Our effort to combat childhood obesity must be far-reaching, and it must be a united effort.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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