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Childhood Obesity Subject of Senate Hearing

On July 16, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families held a hearing on the prevalence of childhood obesity and its impact on America’s youth.

Chair Chris Dodd (D-CT) said, “The numbers are stunning. Nearly one out of every three of America’s children are obese or are at risk of becoming obese — 25 million children in all, with children in minority families at an even greater risk. It is the most common disease of childhood and we’re told it’s largely preventable…Most public health experts believe, and the New England Journal of Medicine recently warned, that unless we act, our children’s generation may be the first in the modern era to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents. Already the health consequences are crystal clear. Right now, children are increasingly being diagnosed with type 2, ‘adult-onset’ diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. The list goes on — stroke, certain types of cancers, osteoarthritis, certain liver diseases. You don’t have to be a health expert to know that these are not diseases we normally associate with children.”

Dr. Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, said, “Many American children are consuming more calories, eating less healthful foods, engaging in less physical activity and, instead, spending their time engaging in sedentary activities. Overall, ‘added sugar’ consumption for Americans is nearly three times the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recommended level, and adolescent females ages 12-15 consumed approximately four percent more calories in 1999-2000 than they did in 1971-1974. In 2003, a USDA report characterized America’s per capita fruit consumption as ‘woefully low’ and noted that vegetable consumption ‘tells the same story.’ Moreover, since the 1970’s, fast food consumption in children has increased five-fold. In the late 1970s, children received approximately two percent of their daily meals from fast food; by the mid-1990s, that increased to ten percent. Children who consume fast food, as compared with those who do not, have higher caloric intake, more fat, and saturated fat, and more added sugar.”

Dr. Levy continued, “In addition to developing poor dietary habits, many children are becoming less physically active. For example, 30 years ago, nearly half of American children walked or biked to school; today, less than one in five either walk or bike to school. Increased screen time, whether [on] television or computers, is associated with higher rates of overweight and obesity. Furthermore, according to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] latest School Health Policies and Programs Study, only 3.8 percent of elementary schools, 7.9 percent of middle schools and 2.1 percent of high schools provided daily physical education or its equivalent. Some attribute at least part of this decline in physical activity programs to the academic requirements of No Child Left Behind [P.L. 107-110]. That is unfortunate as there is growing evidence that fitter, more active students perform better academically.”

Dr. Francine Kaufman, pediatric endocrinologist and professor of pediatrics and communication at the University of Southern California, said, “Childhood obesity disproportionately affects minority and poor children. The prevalence of childhood obesity among African Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans exceeds that of other ethnic groups. The Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] reported that in 2000 the prevalence of obesity was 19 percent for non-Hispanic black children and 20 percent for Mexican American children, compared to 11 percent for non-Hispanic white children…Type 2 diabetes in the pediatric population is disproportionately seen in Hispanic, Native American, and African American adolescents. Estimates show that one in three children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life, but this statistic is nearly one in two for minority children…Today, there is no doubt that obesity in youth, along with its associated medical conditions, is the major health challenge of this century. Although attention has been paid to this problem by government and public health officials, researchers, and health care providers, the number of overweight and obese youth continues to increase. More needs to be done to combat the ever growing epidemics of obesity and diabetes.”

Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, said, “There are many interrelated factors that contribute to rapidly rising rates of obesity in children, chief among them [are] poverty and food insecurity, which lead to lower food expenditures, limited fruit and vegetable consumption, and poor diets. In fact, a recent Food Trust report found that ‘people who live in lower-income areas without access to supermarkets appear to suffer from diet-related deaths at a rate higher than that experienced by the population as a whole.’ In another study, obesity rates were as high as 30 percent in the lowest income neighborhoods, compared to about five percent in the most affluent zip codes. The relatively low cost of foods containing refined grains, added sugars, and fats is also a key factor in the rising obesity rate. Other factors also contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic. For instance, in recent decades, our society has experienced an influx of fast foods, bigger portion sizes, and the convenience of vending machines. Today, nearly one-third of children ages four to 19 eat fast food every day — that translates to six extra pounds per year for every child. And, children are eating more junk food in larger than ever portion sizes. During the late 1990s, portion sizes increased more than sixty times.”

Mr. Lesley continued, “Children today are also over-exposed to junk food marketing. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that food is the top product seen advertised for children — and 34 percent of all the food ads targeting children or teens are for candy and snacks. Unfortunately, the recent economic downturn has translated into rising food costs, and more Americans are turning to lower quality, frozen, bulk, and processed foods for meals. And, as the economy worsens, America’s poorest will be hit the hardest…The time for action is now. As the recent 2006 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report,Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity: How Do We Measure Up? noted, ‘addressing the childhood obesity epidemic is a collective responsibility involving multiple stakeholders and different sectors including the federal government, state and local governments, communities, schools, industry, media, and families.’ The federal government can — really it must — play a critical role in reversing this epidemic by providing leadership, coordinating efforts across agencies, and investing in research and sustained prevention and intervention strategies.”

Margaret Grey, dean and professor at the Yale University School of Nursing, also testified.

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