Children who are overweight and obese may soon have as much costly preventable disease and death as cigarette smokers, according to a 20-year Center for Disease Control study released this month.

CDC researchers found that the number of children who are overweight and obese has nearly tripled. And the hospital costs of children with obesity-related conditions also increased three-fold over the 20-year period from 1979 to 2000. Annual hospital costs for those aged 6–17 increased from $35 million to $127 million.

The number of obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, among children has nearly doubled.  Type 2 diabetes, once only a disease of adults, is on the rise in children.

Some 300,000 annual U.S. deaths are associated with obesity and overweight (compared to more than 400,000 deaths a year associated with cigarette smoking). The total direct and indirect costs attributed to overweight and obesity amounted to $117 billion in the year 2000.

The study noted that approximately 61 percent of U.S. adults and 13 percent of children and adolescents were overweight in 1999.

The study revealed that 3 percent of all Americans meet at least four of the five nutritional recommendations for the intake of grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meats.

Inactivity is also prevalent among both American adults and children. Fewer than one-third engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five days a week, and 40 percent of adults engage in no leisure-time physical activity at all.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a news release that physical education in public schools is becoming more important to increasing physical activity and overall health among American children.

“We need to show children the fun in being active and persuade communities to provide more activities for their youth,” Thompson said in the release. “We need to stop the guilt-ridden lectures and show kids the enjoyable things that they can do to improve their health. That way, they’ll want to spend more time on the playgrounds and less time on their Play Stations.”

In response to the CDC findings, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher announced the release of a new report entitled “The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity.”

The report outlined strategies to deal with the problems. Those options included requiring physical education at all school grades, providing more healthy food options on school campuses, and providing safe and accessible recreational facilities for residents of all ages.

“People tend to think of overweight and obesity as strictly a personal matter, but there is much that communities can and should do to address these problems,” Satcher said in the report.

Failure to address overweight and obesity, he said, “could wipe out some of the gains we’ve made in areas such as heart disease, several forms of cancer, and other chronic health problems.

“We need to get back to the basics. Let’s get our kids off the couches … off the Play Stations … and onto the playgrounds,” Thompson said.

“Adults should be out there playing with them, setting an example of good diet and exercise. We’re the parents—we’re the ones responsible for our children and their health,” encouraged Satcher.

The Surgeon General’s report includes the following recommendations:
·         Put daily, quality physical education in the curriculum for all school grades.
·         Improve school food by including options that are low fat, and more choices of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or non-fat dairy products..
·         Make community facilities available for physical activity for all people, including on the weekends.
·         Create more opportunities for physical activity at work sites.
·         Reduce time spent in sedentary behaviors such as watching television and playing video games.
·         Encourage all expectant mothers to breast-feed their infants. Studies indicate breast-fed babies tend to be less likely to become overweight adults.
·         Increase research on the behavioral and biological causes of overweight and obesity.
·         Educate health care providers and health profession students on the prevention and treatment of overweight and obesity across the lifespan.

The “call to action to prevent and decrease overweight and obesity” is only the beginning, Satcher said. “Through adoption of healthy behaviors, most individuals can reduce the risk of illness and disease. Prevention is the power to protect your health.”

Ray Furris a freelance writer and operates his own communications / marketing business in Poquoson, Va.

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