Alarmed at the steadily escalating number of obese children in America, the Surgeon General’s Office plans next month to release its strongest statement since its first warning against smoking in 1964.
The Surgeon General’s plan follows a finding by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that over the past three decades the percentage of overweight children has doubled, pointing toward a national health crisis in the making.
Researchers from the disease centers are scurrying to finish the report in time for the Olympics in Atlanta - which begin July 19 - in part to use the Summer Games to spark interest in exercising. Although officials are tight-lipped about details, a centers spokesman said the report will recommend levels of exercise that can provide protection against obesity-related diseases.
Studies have shown that an overweight child has an 80 percent chance of remaining obese as an adult. Furthermore, obese children as young as 8 have defects in the way their bodies produce and metabolize sugar, predisposing them to diabetes as adults, researchers have found.
The secrecy surrounding the report is reminiscent of Jan. 11, 1964, when behind locked doors in a State Department auditorium U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Luther Terry briefed 200 reporters about the anti-smoking report. That report linked smoking to lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Within three months, cigarette consumption in the United States declined 20 percent.
“‘The Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity’ will focus on how inactivity is associated with obesity and all kinds of illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes,” said Kerry Stewart, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University who is familiar with the obesity report.
“About 65 percent of the population is not getting enough activity to produce even minimum health benefits, and clearly the trends we are seeing in children are similar to what we are seeing in adults,” said Stewart, who is also director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at Johns Hopkins Bay View Medical Center.
Researchers attribute part of the increase in the percentage of overweight children to changes in eating habits over the last three decades. For example, consumption of high-fat snack food, such as chips, has increased 200 percent.
But food is not the primary culprit. Children are eating only about 300 calories more a day than 30 years ago, but they aren’t as physically active as their parents were three decades ago, said Margaret McDowell, health statistician and nutritionist for the National Center for Health Statistics, an arm of the disease centers.
“My own children are so much more restricted - like house cats in the winter - and they do put on weight,” McDowell said.
Researchers say these unhealthy trends mirror a generation of social changes:
More working parents mean more school-age children are told to stay indoors until parents come home. Bored and lonely, the children munch, watch television and play video games.
More parents feel their neighborhoods are too unsafe to allow their children to play outside.
Multiple-car families mean less walking.
Fast and processed foods, high in fat, have become mealtime mainstays.
Tighter budgets have resulted in cuts to physical education programs in public schools.
This last trend particularly concerns researchers who cite studies showing that good physical education programs help establish lifelong patterns. Such a program should include not only team sports but activities such as walking, bicycling, jogging and gardening, researchers say.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Scripps-McClatchy Western Service