Childhood obesity report gives D.C. a starting point for improving diets

The District's director of health, Dr. Pierre Vigilance, talks with The Washington Post's Hamil Harris about some of the contributing factors leading to childhood obesity in Washington, D.C.
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010; 5:12 PM

The White House may be leading the battle in the war against childhood obesity, but it's not alone.

As Michelle Obama and Cabinet officials held a news conference Tuesday to unveil the results of a White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, D.C. officials were wrapping up a two-day conference on obesity in the District.

Pierre N.D. Vigilance, director of the D.C. Department of Health, said the conference sought to focus on both the disparities of childhood obesity in the District and an action plan to rectify the problem.

Vigilance said the Anacostia River is the dividing line between District residents with poor diets and those with healthful diets. "There are major disparities in the obesity rates in different parts of the city," he said. "If you live east of the River or in Wards 6, 7 and 8, you are more likely to have a higher rate of obesity than if you live in upper Northwest."

Vigilance said the problem of childhood obesity in the District is proportional to a number of environmental factors, such as the location of a grocery store relative to a home. For the issue to be addressed, there needs to be a comprehensive strategy for tackling obesity rates that involve the entire city, he said.

According to a report presented during the conference, poor diet and physical inactivity are the two major contributors to obesity in the District -- and the most preventable causes of death. Obesity accounts for 15 percent of all deaths in the city, according to the District of Columbia's Overweight and Obesity Action Plan.

The report also found:

-- Women in the District are more likely to be obese than men, 25 percent vs. 19 percent.

-- Residents with diabetes and hypertension were more likely to be obese than to be of normal weight.

-- Residents who ate five or more fruits or vegetables daily were less likely to be overweight or obese.

-- The wards with the most grocery stores, organic food and farmers markets, Wards 2 and 3, had the lowest rates of obesity; Ward 8 had the fewest healthful food options and had the highest rate of obesity.

-- High school-age boys were more likely to be obese, at 19 percent, than their female counterparts, nearly 16 percent of whom were obese.

-- Only 30 percent of high school-age youths get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise five days of the week.

-- Rates of obesity have increased from 13.4 percent in 2003 to 17.7 percent for high school-age youths.

-- The percentage of high school-aged youths who participate in some sort of physical activity for at least 60 minutes for five or more days per week increased from 18.2 percent in 2005 (the first year the data were collected) to 30.2 percent in 2007. The percentage of high school-age youths who ate fruits and vegetables five or more times per day decreased from 21.3 percent in 2003 to 19.3 percent in 2007.

Officials at the conference said that to battle the problem of obesity, a holistic approach involving the entire city must be undertaken.

"When people think obesity prevention, they automatically think of the Department of Health or the public school system," said Maya Rockeymoore, executive director of Leadership for Healthy Communities. Rockeymoore said every agency and group -- planning, transportation, parks and recreation, public safety, housing, " as well as community groups, churches, nonprofits, and businesses" must be involved in tackling obesity.

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