Government programs and targeted information campaigns can, indeed, generate positive societal change. Consider a report published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which showed a sharp decline in the rate of childhood obesity in the past several years.
Between 2003-04 and 2011-12, there was about a 40 percent decline in the obesity rate for children ages 2 to 5. A decade ago, the obesity rate for that age group was an unfathomable 13.9 percent; today, it is a still-too-high 8.4 percent.
Childhood obesity has become a cause célèbre over the past decade, with several campaigns targeting an issue that can be a harbinger for lifelong health concerns. As a study published in January indicated, a big part of a child's obesity risk is already established by the age of 5. But, as simple observation indicates, a big part of a child's obesity risk already is established at birth by the genes they inherit. That fact of life can be compounded by a society rife with fast food and junk food and sedentary lifestyles. No, playing video games does not count as exercise.
The Washington Post points to six primary reasons for the drop in obesity among young children. Among them: Nutrition assistance such as food stamps and WIC (women, infants, and children) has been reconfigured to emphasize healthy eating choices; new federal nutritional guidelines have trickled down to state and local programs; and food companies, under pressure, have limited television advertisements targeting children. In addition, several national programs emphasizing healthy nutrition and physical activity — such as first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign — have made a difference, and in December 2010 President Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to encourage better eating habits in schools.
Nationally, the latest study showed no real change in obesity rates for any age group aside from 2- to 5-year-olds. But a program in the Seattle area reinforces how targeted education can help alter habits. Several school districts in that region split up $2.8 million from the federal Communities Putting Prevention to Work program and made health-conscious changes in their schools -- from updated playground equipment to more nutritious school lunches. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a significant decrease in obesity rates among 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students at the schools that had taken part, while there was no decrease at schools that were not part of the program.
Now, the White House is expanding its reach. This week, the administration laid out new restrictions on the marketing of junk food and sugary drinks in schools. “The idea here is simple — our classrooms should be healthy places where kids aren’t bombarded with ads for junk food,” Michelle Obama said. We agree, although schools should be wise enough to follow the lead of Clark County districts and reach that conclusion without a mandate from the federal government.
Overall, a lower obesity rate for toddlers and preschoolers is a move in the right direction, but much work remains. Obesity is well-known to increase the risk of lifelong maladies such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, certain cancers and osteoarthritis. It is also well-known to increase health expenditures and to extract an enormous societal toll. There is no cure and there never will be, but continued efforts from education and health leaders can help reduce the impact of obesity.