The prevalence of obesity has leveled off in the past decade in the US after nearly doubling in the previous two decades, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week. This is good news but not exactly great: One-third of adults — more than 78 million people — in the US are obese, up from 30.5 percent in 1999.
Unfortunately, the obesity rate among boys aged 6 to 19 is up 29 percent. Some 12.5 million children — nearly 1 in 3 — are now obese. Health insurers and employers are now required to pay for the cost of screening children for obesity and providing “appropriate counseling,” though medical professionals are just beginning to explore treatments and programs that might help children not only lose weight, but learn to keep it off, the New York Times reports.
Researchers interviewed by Bloomberg underscore that obesity is a problem which is better prevented, as it is extremely hard to reverse and has been linked to numerous health problems including heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and stroke. Americans spend $147 billion annually on obesity-related health costs. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, points out that,
“Despite all the effort and all the money we’ve put into obesity control, there is no sign the epidemic is abating. If anything, obesity rates are actually inching up, especially in some groups.”
Over the past decade, obesity has increased more in men. 27.5 men were obese at the end of the previous decade but now 35.5 percent are. Obesity prevalence in women has remained about the same in the time period and is currently at 35.8 percent, though women 60 and older have the highest obesity prevalence of any age group, 42.3 percent.
Rise in Childhood Obesity: What Should Be Done?
My teenage son Charlie, who is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, is not overweight. But children with disabilities are 38 percent more likely to be overweight than their peers. Due to their diagnoses, children with disabilities may have far fewer physical education classes and not as many opportunities for exercise and recreation. Some may also take medications that have been linked to weight gain. Charlie took one such medication, Risperidone — an increase in appetite is a common side-effect — for some years and indeed gained quite a bit of weight. We worked on Charlie eating a healthy diet (not so easy as he is a picky eater) and exercising daily to address this.. Thankfully, he is no longer taking Risperidone anymore, but the experience definitely alerted us to the dangers of obesity in children.
Jacob Warman, chief of endocrinology at the Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York, speculates that obesity may be on the rise in boys and at a faster rate than in girls due to “the ever-growing use of video games, the Internet, and electronic devices.” School PE and fitness program certainly emphasize exercise, staying active and eating right but the reality is that, outside of school, kids are drawn to electronic devices (and junk food).
Warman also points out that girls being more “self-conscious about their bodies” may be a reason the obesity rate is not as high among them. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, hones in on how boys and young men are prime targets for fast-food marketing:
“Marketers encourage boys and young men to eat and drink as much as they can as part of macho lifestyles. The bigger the portions, the more the calories, and the bigger the person.”
Complicating the treatment of childhood obesity is that children, being children, have not finished growing so “the goal of any program may be to help them grow into a healthier weight rather than to actually lose pounds.” A successful program involves the child’s family “as a whole, changing what everybody eats and how much time they are all active, not sitting in front of a computer screen or television,” the New York Times underscores.
Wellpoint, one of the US’s largest health insurers, is seeking to train pediatricians and link them to dieticians; the health plan covers four such visits to doctors and four to dieticians. United Health has piloted a program that includes a partnership with the YMCA in Rhode Island and is meant to be a “friendlier, more cost-effective alternative” than hospital treatment.
As the New York Times quotes the chief medical officer for WellPoint, Dr. Samuel R. Nussbaum: “If this were easy, if there were clear outcomes for success, we would be investing in these.” The search for programs to help curb obesity in children is just starting and, given the latest figures from the CDC, not a moment too late.
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