January 10, 2003

Childhood Obesity Rates Soaring

By Louise Rafkin
The California Report

More than bio-terrorism or the threat of small pox, the United States Surgeon General says there is a looming crisis for Americans that could cripple the health care system and weaken the United States economy.

The threat, health officials say, affects Latino children disproportionately.

“Obesity is the fastest growing, most threatening disease in America today,” said Surgeon General Richard Carmona in a speech delivered in December in San Francisco to school board members and administrators from all over the state of California.

“If we don’t do anything about this issue, we will have a morbidly obese, dysfunctional population within the next couple of decades,” he said. More than fifty percent of the U.S. population is currently overweight, he added, and that number is rising.

Dr. Carmona, a trauma surgeon with extensive experience in public health, told educators that he is most concerned about children who are particularly at risk for obesity. In California, statistics show nearly 30 percent of children and teens are overweight or obese. These numbers have more than doubled in the last ten years.

According to Carmona, studies show that minority populations are particularly at risk for obesity. While roughly 12 per cent of white children are overweight, in the Latino/Hispanic population the percentage spikes to nearly 20 percent, or one out of five children. Kelly Brownell, an obesity researcher at Yale University, said the ethnic differences in obesity rates might be linked to “biological vulnerability” or a difference in environment: many people live in areas saturated with fast-food outlets which sell foods with high caloric contents.

Surgeon General Carmona points out that diseases related to obesity, including hyper-tension, heart disease, and Type II Diabetes, are on a steep rise. Type II Diabetes, a disease directly related to diet, was virtually unheard of in children only decades ago. Now nearly one in four obese children exhibit signs of the disease. Symptoms of advanced Type II Diabetes include vision loss, vascular disease, and possible death.

Many types of cancer, Carmona reported, including breast cancer and colon cancer, are related to poor diet and being overweight.

“Obesity will break the health care system as we know it,” he said, “unless we take action now, in the not too distant future we will be spending half our incomes on health care costs.”

Across California, many physical education programs have been cut altogether, and most have been systematically shrunk. Currently, a minimum of 200 minutes of activity must be offered to kids per week, but some school districts cover this requirement with a short recess. During breaks, many youngsters stay inside. Over one third of high school students report that they never take part in vigorous physical exercise, Carmona said. A recent California study proves conclusively that kids who are physically fit do better academically than those who are inactive.

“Healthy programs do not need to cost money,” Carmona claimed. “We need to encourage kids to get off computers and Play Stations and get out and move.” Carmona said parents can plan activities that include opportunities for all family members to be physically active together.

Schools Soda Sales

One of the biggest factors in childhood obesity is soft drinks. According to California State Senator Deborah Ortiz, they are everywhere, including on school playgrounds. Many schools have lucrative contracts with soda companies like Coke and Pepsi. In fact, soda companies are now paying school districts up to $100,000 annually to exclusively offer their beverages on campuses.

According to a recent study, every additional daily serving of sugar-sweetened soda increases a child’s risk for obesity by 60 percent. Recent USDA research shows that half of the excess sugar that kids consume comes from soft drinks.

Ortiz encourages educators and parents to phase out sodas for kids, replacing the beverages with healthy drinks and, in some instances, bottled water. Crystal Kochendorfer, a member of the Board of Trustees for Capistrano Unified School District in south Orange Country, said phasing out soda sales in her district was relatively easy.

Capistrano Unified was the first district in the state to ban soda sales. Districts in Los Angeles and Oakland have followed their lead.

(Note: You can participate in a statewide live radio discussion of important health issues, from 7 to 8 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month on KPBS, 89.5 on your FM dial.)

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