Since 1980, obesity rates have doubled in adults and more than tripled in children. The problem is even worse among black, Hispanic and Native American children. Nationwide, more than two-thirds of adults and more than one in three children are overweight or obese.
We see the sobering impact of these numbers in the high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses that are starting to affect our children. A study from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine reported that obese children as young as age 3 show signs of an inflammatory response that has been linked to heart disease later in life.
Everyone has a role to play in the prevention and control of obesity. Mothers, fathers, teachers, business executives, child-care professionals, clinicians, politicians and government and community leaders: we must all commit to changes that promote the health and wellness of our families and our communities.
Change starts with the choices we make each day for ourselves and those around us. At the same time, there is a growing consensus that we, as a nation, need to create communities and environments where the healthy choices are the easy choices and the affordable choices.
“The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation” is an attempt to change the national conversation from a negative one about obesity and illness to a positive one about being healthy and being fit. We need to stop bombarding Americans with what they can’t do and what they can’t eat. We need to begin to talk about what they can do to become healthy and fit.
For years now, we have encouraged Americans to eat more nutritiously, exercise regularly and maintain healthier lifestyles. But for people to do these things, Americans need to live and work in environments that support their efforts.
For example, children should be playing and having fun. However, we have to provide safe environments for them, such as clean and well-lighted parks, recreational facilities, community centers, and walking and bike paths. Healthy foods should be affordable and accessible. Increased consumer knowledge and awareness about healthy nutrition and physical activity will foster a growing demand for healthy food products and exercise options, dramatically influencing marketing trends.
We should remember that individuals are more likely to change their behavior if they have a meaningful reward – something more than reaching a certain weight or dress size. The reward has to be something that each person can feel, can enjoy and can celebrate.
The real reward is optimal health, which allows people to embrace each day and live their lives to the fullest — without disease, disability or lost productivity.
We have an opportunity to make a difference in this public-health crisis of obesity and overweight. Working together, we can become a healthy and fit nation. Today I would like to ask for your help.
Benjamin, a family physician, is the surgeon general of the United States.