A Heavy Burden for D.C. Kids

Some states limit the sale of high-calorie foods in school vending machines.
Some states limit the sale of high-calorie foods in school vending machines. (By Randy Squires -- Associated Press)
By Sally Squires
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A new report gives District children a dubious distinction: Nearly one in four of those ages 10 to 17 is overweight, making them the heaviest kids in the country.

Youngsters in the nation's capital are leaders of a disturbing trend, according to the report, released yesterday by the nonprofit Trust for America's Health. A "fat belt" now stretches through the South and is spreading into the Southwest. Among the states with the heftiest children are West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico.

Children in Maryland and Virginia are slightly slimmer overall: About 14 percent of those ages 10 to 17 are overweight in Virginia, 13 percent in Maryland.

The adult obesity epidemic isn't getter better either, despite $35 billion that consumers spend annually on diet-related products and services, a growing public awareness of the dangers of weight-related illnesses and many public health efforts. The new report -- "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America" -- finds that not a single state has shown a drop in obesity rates in the past year and that residents of 31 states have gotten fatter. If this trend continues, the country will not meet the federal goal of cutting adult obesity rates to 15 percent of the population by 2010.

"We are headed in the wrong direction," says Janet Collins, director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

In Mississippi, for example, nearly one in three adults is obese -- the highest state level ever reported. Other states where a quarter or more adults are obese -- not just overweight -- include West Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan and Oklahoma.

"There's been a breakthrough in terms of drawing attention to the obesity epidemic," said Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health. "Now we need a breakthrough in terms of policies and results. Poor nutrition and physical inactivity are robbing America of our health and productivity."

Kids are at particular risk for weight-related health problems, from elevated blood pressure, premature heart disease and what used to be known as adult-onset diabetes. The report concludes that if current obesity rates continue, "today's children are likely to be the first generation to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents."

The health toll is already being felt. Obesity-related hospital costs for children ages 6 to 17 more than tripled from 1979 to 1999, rising from $35 million to $127 million, according to the report.

Whether corrective measures at the local and state levels are having the desired effect is unclear. For example, nine of the states with the highest percentages of overweight kids have done such things as track the body mass index of students, improve the nutrition of school lunches or limit the sale of high-calorie foods in school vending machines or snack bars. But just two of the 11 states with the leanest children -- Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Washington, Alaska, Montana, Vermont, Nebraska and Rhode Island -- have those policies in place.

Does that mean that these steps may not work?

"We're dealing with the chicken-and-egg question," says former CDC director Jeffrey Koplan, who reviewed the report before its release. "We don't know what came first."

The report notes that while many promising efforts are being initiated across the country, there still is no national plan to thwart the growing obesity epidemic. "Is what is being done enough to turn the tide?" Collins asks. "That is one of the challenges that faces us now. We need a very strong, multi-pronged approach."

Despite the failure to reduce obesity overall, there are bright spots. The report highlights some communities where small, simple changes are having an impact.

In Somerville, Mass., a town of 78,000 outside Boston, a "Shape Up" program added school crossing guards to previously unattended corners and alerted parents to the change. That boosted by 5 percent the number of kids who walked to school.

In 2001, the National Recreation and Park Association teamed with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to launch "Hearts 'n Parks," a campaign designed to increase activity in 56 communities in 10 states with high rates of cardiovascular disease. The program has since evolved into "Step Up to Health" in more than 700 communities. Its impact on health is still not known.

"Interventions are important to put in place," says Koplan, who directs the Global Health Institute at Emory University in Atlanta. "But none of this is going to turn around [the obesity epidemic] in a year or two, or three and maybe not even in five. We have got to be in this for the long haul."

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