A few years ago, I felt a glimmer of hope that the childhood obesity epidemic might soon turn a corner.
In 2013, an analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrated decreases in obesity among low-income preschoolers in 19 states, and steady rates in another 20 states. Though the decreases were small (with dips of about 1% in several states), measured optimism was warranted, as these slight changes could lead to a larger downward turn in the coming years. Experts pointed to improved federal programs that provided supplemental food and nutrition education to low-income families. Then there were nation-wide movements like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. All of these could make an impact.
Unfortunately, a recent analysis of the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) indicates that childhood obesity is not getting any better. Data show that the percentage of children ages 2 to 19 with obesity increased from 14% in 1999 to 18.5% in 2015 and 2016. Though overall obesity rates remained constant between the 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 surveys, the report indicates an alarming jump in obesity among children ages 2 to 5 – from 9% to nearly 14%. Moreover, racial and ethnic disparities persisted, with higher rates of obesity among Hispanic and African-American children than white children. This new analysis affirms that childhood obesity remains a massive public health crisis, and, as such, must become a concerted focus for policymakers, government officials, physicians, and the nation as a whole.
With rates of obesity drastically increasing over the past 20 years – even as millions of dollars have poured into various prevention efforts, media campaigns, and community programs – the lack of progress leads to me ask: what are we missing? Why aren’t these efforts making a difference on the national scale? The root of this question, I think, lies in another: what will it take to gain enough awareness, urgency, momentum, and persistence to effectively employ strategies that do make a societal impact on obesity?
One thing is clear – if we do not act, our nation is in trouble. Projections indicate that more than half of today’s American children will have obesity by the time they turn 35. “The new reports on current and projected obesity rates demand definitive action involving a comprehensive national strategy across all relevant segments of society to prevent a looming public health disaster,” writes Dr. David Ludwig of Boston Children’s Hospital in an editorial accompanying the article.
Though this new analysis brings discouraging news, I remain hopeful because I learn of new initiatives related to prevention on a daily basis – initiatives that are not only creative in their approach, but that are also sustainable and scalable. For instance, community-centered initiatives like Brighter Bites and Cooking Matters focus on improving access to healthy foods and on empowering program participants with the skills and knowledge they need to cook healthy meals with family members. I also remain hopeful because I see local health departments rallying to fund programs like Mass in Motion, an initiative that promotes the creation of wellness-related programs in cities and towns across Massachusetts, and Agita Sao Paulo, a community outreach effort in Sao Paulo, Brazil, that encourages physical activity through creative programming. Programs like these directly improve the health of community members and must be expanded to the national level to make an impact on society as a whole. These programs simply need more attention, support, and funding. By pairing successful, scalable initiatives like this with greater awareness and urgency, I believe we can begin to make a difference in this epidemic.