According to the Harvard School of Public Health, over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates have tripled in the United States. Today our country has some of the highest obesity rates in the world.
One out of every six children is obese, and one out of every three children is overweight, or obese. In the 70s, only 5% of children were obese, but by 2016, almost 20% of all U.S. children were obese. The problem doesn’t get better as children age. By the time children are in the 15 year-old age range, 31% are obese.
Why so much obesity? In children from low socio-economic urban homes, experts state the lack of exercise is a big contributor, but so is a lack of safe places to play. Experts cite unhealthy eating patterns, but how many homes have fresh vegetables as the centerpiece of the dinner plate or a nearby grocer that sells fresh, colorful food? Experts agree parents must limit children’s television and computer time, but our patients who are single mothers say movies, and computer games ensure their children’s safety when they are at work.
Children fall prey to sophisticated marketing campaigns by those who want to sell heavily processed, additive-infused “food”. Convenient, cheap, colored masses of low nutrition, high caloric “meals” do not make a for a healthy diet that promotes healthy weight. According to former President Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, obese children and teens have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and impaired glucose tolerance. When I was a child, we left the house with instructions to return home by dinner, played for hours to the point of exhaustion and came back to a home-made dinner. Perpetual snacking till bedtime was unheard of, and chips and ice cream were treats reserved for occasional parties or picnics, not household staples. But, it is a whole new world for kids living in urban cities today.
If you don’t think it’s different, consider this: 20% of all American meals are eaten in the car, Americans spend 10% of their disposable income on fast food, and more than 1 in 4 people eat fast food, every day. It’s no wonder why our children are so obese.
I may not agree with the recent proposed changes in America’s health care plan, but Secretary of Health Price has named childhood obesity as a national health priority. But between calling it out, and effectively addressing it, lies a whole sea of work .
At Family Health Centers of San Diego, we are planning a major initiative to address childhood obesity in our youngest patients. I recently reviewed our health center’s data on the numbers of obese children, ages 1 to 10 years of age, and the early emergence of disease in these same children. It was sobering. Over 1,500 children were considered obese, and of concern was the presence of Type II Diabetes and hyperlipidemia.
We don’t hold the world’s record for most obese children—that honor goes to Greece. However, we are not far behind as we sit solidly in fourth place. But at the rate we’re going, it will be a short climb to first place unless we reverse current trends. With childhood obesity being a high cost contributor of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and many other diseases, first place is not a world record the U.S. wants.