04/02/2013 02:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2013

The Rising Threat of Childhood Obesity

As a girl growing up in Galveston, Texas, my friends and I would play active games around the neighborhood or (in summer) go to the beach to swim and collect seashells. We had PE at school every day. School lunches weren't memorable but they weren't loaded with junk food and sugary sodas. Many days my brothers and I were told to go outside and run around until dinnertime; other kids did the same thing. Not an athlete, nonetheless I was in shape and so were most of my friends.

Today many of our children live in communities without safe places to walk, and many go to schools that have eliminated or cut down on recess. Even in "safe" communities, my own experience as a mother was that younger kids are playing outside mostly in the context of programmed activities and "play dates," and that often more time is spent sitting in a car commuting to these activities than actually being active.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 12.5 million toddlers, kids and teenagers in the U.S. now suffer from obesity, and that puts them at risk of developing a number of serious health problems early in life. And the costs to society are staggering. For example, the United States pays $190 billion every year for treating obesity-related illnesses -- and that doesn't take into account the loss in productivity for an adult worker or the tragedy when an overweight child slips behind in school or suffers emotionally.

Some places are successfully battling this public health problem. For example, New York, Philadelphia and cities in Mississippi and California recently recorded slight drops in childhood obesity rates. Those declines, after decades of rising rates, might be due to comprehensive efforts, including government interventions, to fight obesity.

In New York, the health department has banned a type of unhealthy fat used by fast-food restaurants (trans fat) and schools are using healthier fare and limiting portion size. Mayor Bloomberg's attempt to impose a ban on supersized sodas just lost a round in court but he vows to continue the fight, saying that such humongous drinks are linked to obesity.

Those efforts, combined with national drives to combat obesity, are a step in the right direction. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently updated nutritional guidelines for schools across the country, a move that means that cafeterias are taking the fried tater tots off the menu and providing children with more fresh fruits, vegetables and other wholesome foods.

About 32 million children eat lunch at school and another 12 million eat breakfast in the school cafeteria every day. But we've still got a long way to go to entice children and teens to develop healthier eating habits.

As the mother of a high school student, I know how hard it can be to get teenagers to reach for wholesome snacks instead of junk food. Yet, as the Dean of the George Washington (GW) University School of Public Health and Health Services, I also believe that judicious government interventions can tweak our environment in ways that make it easier to eat healthier food and get out and move.

To be effective, government officials must join hands with communities, business leaders, transportation experts, teachers and others to create healthier neighborhoods, including safe places for all kids to play, sidewalks and bike lanes and nearby stores or farm markets selling an array of fresh, affordable foods.

Parents can set the stage for lifelong good habits by setting the dinner table with nutritious foods. But as first lady Michelle Obama pointed out at a childhood obesity summit held on the George Washington University campus, parents can't fight this problem alone.

In her address, Mrs. Obama called on industry to stop marketing practices designed to encourage kids to beg for unhealthy food and sugary drinks. And she pointed out that making nutrition labels easier to read and placing produce and other healthy products at eye level has been shown to make it easier for busy parents to select the nutritious foods that children need to grow and develop properly.

We will also need a stronger scientific base for enacting policies that can help all Americans eat healthier foods and get the activity they need to stay fit. Just as studies can help a doctor decide the best medicine to prescribe, researchers must also test public health strategies and identify the ones most likely to succeed.

We can no longer afford to simply talk about the problem or to implement untested solutions for childhood obesity. In order to make a dent in this rising public health threat we must put forth our best effort, one based on scientifically-proven strategies that will help all of us do the right thing.

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