Nabbing The Obesity Epidemic At Its Roots

07/01/2011 08:42 am ET | Updated Aug 31, 2011

As we look at the obesity epidemic that's widening waistlines and thickening coronary arteries across the country, it can be helpful to start with obesity in adults and work our way backward. Thanks to a new report, we can trace the roots of adult obesity to a younger age than you might have suspected.

Let's start with adults. More than one-third of adults ages 20 and older are now overweight. An equal number are overweight to a severe enough degree that they're classified as obese. This extra weight is putting them at risk of all manner of diseases: high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, osteoarthritis and so on.

In 2008, the cost of medical care for obesity totaled about $147 billion.

But let's take it back a step and look at the kids and teens who are enjoying the sedentary lifestyle and ample supply of fattening foods that the American lifestyle so often provides. Eighteen percent of youths ages 12 to 19 are now obese, and doctors are finding that Type 2 diabetes is on the rise in young people.

A new report from the Institute of Medicine lets us trace the obesity epidemic back even further. These authors indicate that we can do better than just to lose weight as adults. We can do even better than trying interrupt overweight teens before they become obese adults.

We can -- and should -- start with infants and toddlers. According to the report, nearly 10 percent of babies and toddlers are carrying too much weight. More than 20 percent of kids are already overweight or obese between the ages of 2 and 5.

This is alarming. In fact, it's beyond alarming. Humans aren't supposed to be getting this big, especially this early in life. We shouldn't be so ingrained in the habits that pile on the pounds that the process starts before our kids even learn to read.

The authors urge parents, pediatricians and child-care providers to take this concern seriously. Some of the best recommendations in the report include:

• Childrens' healthcare professionals should weigh and measure them at every routine visit. If a child weighs too much, the doctor should let the parents know. (By extension, if a doctor tells you that your child weighs too much, accept this input and act on it).
• Help your children learn to eat in a healthy way. Present them with plenty of nutritious options so they get accustomed to eating them from an early age. Help them learn to recognize when they're truly hungry and when they're full. (Another tip: eating together as a family gives you a great chance to do these things).
• Limit the time preschoolers spend watching TV and playing computer games. They'll see fewer ads for sugary drinks and snacks this way, and they'll spend less time sitting down.
• Keep everyone moving. Babies, toddlers and preschoolers need plenty of chances to run around and be active throughout the day. It's up to you as a parent (and up to any child-care providers as well) to provide these opportunities. You can also set a good example by staying fit and active yourself.

As parents, it's our job to make sure our kids grow up in a safe environment. We should also ensure that they arrive in adulthood with the tools to stay fit and healthy.

For even more tips on how to get better health and need the health care system less, check out "The New Prescription: How to Get the Best Health Care in a Broken System," which I cowrote with Eric Metcalf, M.P.H. This is a book about getting what you really want: better health on your own terms. More medical care doesn't mean better health. I reveal some of the most egregious problems with a medical system gone awry, opening readers' eyes to how to better navigate the changes underway. Using solid research, insiders' insights and patient anecdotes, the book offers cost-effective and potentially life-saving ways to get more out of health care while using less of it.