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Michelle Obama taking on childhood obesity

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

As President Obama struggles to pass sweeping healthcare reform this month, first lady Michelle Obama is taking on her own battle for the nation’s health: childhood obesity.

Last month, the first lady launched “Let’s Move,” a campaign aimed at eliminating childhood obesity in just one generation.

 Childhood obesity — and obesity in general — has increasingly become an important issue in the nation’s health debate. Today, a little more than one out of every three Americans is obese.

As in adults, obesity in children is determined by the body mass index, or BMI, a measure of weight in relation to height. Unlike the BMI for adults, the measurement for children is plotted on CDC growth charts and is age- and gender-specific, because the body’s composition changes with age and differs between boys and girls.

In the 2007 report on health and risk behaviors of Massachusetts youth, it was found that 11 percent of high school students were obese and another 15 percent were at risk.

The numbers were worse for middle school students — 18 percent were at risk of obesity.

On the national level, the prevalence of childhood obesity  is so severe that the first lady called it a “crisis” at a recent conference of the School Nutrition Association.  

While “Let’s Move” aims to benefit all children in America, it is especially important for communities of color.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity does not affect all racial groups evenly —blacks and Hispanics have much higher incidents of obesity than whites. In Massachusetts, 30-34 percent of blacks are obese, and 25-29 percent of Hispanics, compared to 20-24 percent in whites.

This means communities of color are up to 15 percent more obese than the statewide average of 20.9 percent.

Obesity has major economic and health consequences as well. Each year the United States spends over $147 billion in healthcare-related costs on obesity-related diseases, like diabetes, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. It is estimated that one-third of children born after the year 2000 will have diabetes at some point in their lives.

 “The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake,” Obama said.

In addition to these statistics, personal experience drives Obama. As a busy working mother in Chicago with little time to cook, she frequently relied on fast food to feed her family.

It didn’t take long before she saw the negative results in her two young daughters. The family’s pediatrician recommended changes in their diet — less junk food, more fresh fruits and vegetables —and soon after following the doctor’s advice, Mrs. Obama began to see marked improvement in her children’s health.

“I wanted to bring the lessons I learned to the White House,” she said.

 “Let’s Move” addresses four areas: helping parents make healthy family choices; securing healthy food in schools; increasing children’s physical activity; and ensuring better access to healthy and affordable food — especially in low-income neighborhoods.

In addition,  “Let’s Move” works with the Food and Drug Administration to make food labels easier to read, and with the American Academy of Pediatricians to encourage doctors to regularly measure BMI.

 Schools are also a major target of the program. Collaborating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Let’s Move” encourages school food providers to reduce the amount of sodium, sugar and fat in their meals, and increase the amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

 The program will also work to push the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which aims to improve the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

 In conjunction with “Let’s Move,” Pres. Obama launched the Taskforce on Childhood Obesity — the first of its kind — to review all policies and programs for children’s nutrition and physical activity and develop a national action plan.

“Let’s Move” is not without its critics. They contend the well-intentioned program fails to address what many researchers believe are  two of the main contributors to childhood obesity: marketing and accessibility.

 According to a 2005 Institute of Medicine research report, marketing has a strong influence on children’s diet. Each year, $10 billion is spent on food and beverage marketing to children — promoting foods high in sugar, salt and fat, and low in nutrients — which puts them at high risk for obesity.

 Today, American children consume at least 30 percent of their daily calories from junk food, with soft drinks alone comprising 10 percent of their daily caloric intake.

Another factor in childhood obesity is proximity to fast food. Research conducted by professors at Harvard’s School of Public Health and doctors at Children’s Hospital in Boston found that “Fast-food restaurants are concentrated within a short walking distance from schools, exposing children to poor-quality food environments.”

Later research in California linked the proximity of fast food restaurants and schools with the obesity rates of students.

 This is not Obama’s first public effort to encourage a healthy lifestyle. A year ago, with students from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C., she created a 1,100 square-foot vegetable garden on the White House’s South Lawn.

It was the first of its kind since Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Victory Garden” in 1943. The garden is now home to 55 diferent kinds of vegetables.

“Our kids can’t afford for us to get this wrong,” Obama said about childhood obesity in a speech to the National Governors Association last month. “Let’s stop wringing our hands and citing statistics. Let’s move.”