Healthy environment key to combating obesity in children

First generation that may not outlive its parents

During the past three decades, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled. Extra pounds put kids at risk of developing medical conditions formerly associated with adults, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

“This is the first generation that may not outlive its parents,” says Debra Haire-Joshu, PhD, professor and associate dean for research at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and faculty scholar in the Institute for Public Health.

To combat this health epidemic in children, obesity researcher Haire-Joshu says parents, schools and communities have to be involved.

“There are multiple and complex causes of childhood obesity, which will require a comprehensive approach and solution,” says Haire-Joshu, also a professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. “We need to create an environment where it’s easy to be healthy. For example, we need to promote access to healthy foods and physical education in schools and provide an environment that encourages activity by building sidewalks and bike lanes in our communities. ”

Recently, Haire-Joshu worked closely with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in framing policy priorities to battle childhood obesity. These priorities helped shape recommendations by HHS to the Office of First Lady Michelle Obama during development of her campaign, Let’s Move. This campaign is designed to reverse the trend of childhood obesity within a generation.

In this effort, the federal government is working with local officials and leaders in business and nonprofit sectors to provide more nutritious food in schools, find more opportunities for children to be physically active, and give more communities access to affordable, healthful food.

“We went through structural changes in our society that encouraged overeating and sedentary activity, and now we need to flip back,” she says. “Simple steps families can take are limiting portion sizes and eating more fruits and vegetables. Also, people need to be active most days for at least 30 minutes.”

Haire-Joshu also says it’s important for pediatricians to track children’s body mass index and talk to parents about ways to battle obesity, which is another component of Let’s Move.

“Parents need to hear simple, clear messages that are communicated regularly,” Haire-Joshu says. “They also need to understand the choices they make for their family today will have a lasting impact on their children’s health.”