09/25/2010 10:31 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Childhood Obesity: Fighting for the Future Health of America's Youth

At the start of the school year, we refocus our attention from the diversions of summer to thoughts about our children's future. This September, with the debut of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, the spotlight is on the future health of America's youth and the commitment we must all make to ensure our children have a fair chance at healthy lives.

As 17th U.S. Surgeon General, I was privileged to serve as the nation's doctor. I focused much of my time on promoting proven programs and individual steps that lead to good health. As a father, physician and nurse, I have a special place in my heart for children, and I know the brief window of opportunity we have to teach them simple lessons that can lead to a lifetime of good health.

For example, many of our children face an uphill battle against weight gain because they don't understand how important it is to eat healthy foods in healthy portions and be physically active every day. The science tells us that we must focus on this problem now, before it is too late. The current epidemic of childhood obesity and other weight-related chronic diseases among young people could mean we are raising the first generation of American children who will live shorter lives than their parents.

Nearly 17 percent of American children and adolescents are obese. Today, children as young as 10 are being diagnosed with high blood pressure and weight-related conditions like type 2 diabetes, which as a practicing physician, I saw only in adults. If the childhood obesity epidemic remains unchecked, it will condemn many of our kids to shorter lives, as well as the emotional and financial burdens of poor health.

Yet, there is hope on the horizon. Some recent studies indicate that obesity rates among American children may be hitting a plateau and even declining in some groups.(1) Still, this is no time to rest on modest success or to leave the solution to "someone else." Complacency and inattention must give way to working together to aggressively fight this epidemic that has impacted our nation far too long. Obesity is a complex issue and solving it requires that our approaches be coordinated, multifaceted and collaborative.

Many leaders in the public and private sectors are heeding the call and creating initiatives to tackle childhood obesity. Actions, such as the designation of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, spring from First Lady Michelle Obama's leadership of efforts to end childhood obesity within this generation. Other child-based initiatives are making a real difference in local communities. Triple Play, a program of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, teaches children how to be more physically active, eat healthier and engage in healthy relationships. The YMCA offers Healthy Family Home with tools to make small, sustainable, powerful changes for parents and children. These and other programs can help families and communities win the fight against obesity.

Similarly, businesses are also using their tremendous reach and resources to find solutions. Coca-Cola's Live Positively programming, Kraft Foods' Salsa, Salud y Sabor initiative, and Nintendo's Wii Fit games represent the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity that exists in the private sector.

Yet no company or organization can replace the role of the family in the fight against childhood obesity. Unfortunately, many parents and caregivers themselves suffer from health disparities and lack the health literacy skills to pass on good habits to the children they love. We must support parents and help them learn and practice the behaviors that lead to healthy lives.

Focusing national attention on childhood obesity is an important step in tackling the childhood obesity epidemic, but we must remember that the commitment lasts beyond National Childhood Obesity Awareness month. It must be a year-round effort -- one that reaches all of our children where they live, study and play. The future health of our nation depends on it.