Obesity is the global warming of public health policy. Most acknowledge that obesity is a serious national problem, but we can't seem to mount a sustained effort to reverse a trend that has seen obesity rates more than double among U.S. children and adults since the 1970s.
We need to do better, especially with children. Obese children are at risk for diabetes, joint problems, breathing difficulties and hypertension. They are vulnerable to discrimination, bullying and low self-esteem. And, obese children are more likely to become obese adults, putting them at risk for other serious health conditions, including heart attacks and some cancers.
In addition to the personal travails, the growing prevalence of obesity puts a huge strain on the already overburdened health care system.
Thus it was painful to read the results of a recent study which found that 37 percent of Hartford preschoolers are overweight or obese, far exceeding national standards. The study, by researchers from the UConn Center for Public Health and Health Policy in partnership with city health officials, looked at 1,120 Hartford preschoolers at 35 child-care sites across the city, The Courant reported. The results: 20 percent were obese and 17 percent were overweight. The obesity rate was about the same for boys and girls, but obesity was much higher among Latino children.
To make matters worse, the group of 4- to 5-year-olds showed a higher obesity rate than those ages 3 to 4. Children should be losing their chubbiness as they grow longer limbs, said Ann Ferris, director of the UConn public health center. Under federal guidelines, only 5 percent of preschoolers are expected to be obese, with 10 percent classified as overweight.
Mayor Pedro Segarra was properly alarmed and vowed action. He said he will begin a public relations campaign immediately, and develop a citywide strategy to deal with the problems, focusing on schools, recreation and nutrition, over the next year.
The city should respond, and with more than posters and Powerpoints. Ms. Ferris said poverty in Hartford is likely a major cause in the high obesity rate. Processed foods are typically cheaper and more readily available than more wholesome food, and children who live in unsafe neighborhoods are less likely to play outside after school. That means more farm-to-school programs for fresh fruit and vegetables, more physical activities in school, including safe walking and biking to school, and perhaps more instruction on cooking and nutrition for parents.
The problem may be more severe in Hartford — indeed it may be contributing to the achievement gap because healthier kids do better in school — but it is a problem across all of society. The legislature, which led the charge some years ago to get sugary drinks out of schools, ought to consider a broad public education campaign on healthy eating and more physical activity. The lawmakers could back it up with more facilities such as multi-use trails.
Some schools across the country grow vegetables and have them for lunch. Tennessee has school health coordinators who look after the full spectrum of a child's well-being: academic, physical, social and nutritional, a model that has lowered the state's childhood obesity rate.
A Hartford chapter of First Lady Michelle Obama's excellent "Let's Move" initiative has just formed and will have a "Let's Play Expo" event focused on nutrition and recreation Dec. 15 at 10 a.m. the XL Center (see:http://bit.ly/Xj1Xir).
Kids are bombarded with fast-food and soda advertising, and push their parents to take them to fast-food emporiums, where they often use the drive-thru. Neither kids nor adults get enough exercise. Obesity costs the U.S. government an estimated $147 billion a year in medical costs. And it is producing a generation of children who have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at