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American Kids Have a Huge Problem

Officials worry about alarming rise in obesity incidence

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 12, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Put down that cookie. Grab the can of soda out of your child's hand. Turn off the television. Take a brisk walk. Lighten up.

Physically, that is. The fact that too many Americans, old and young, are overweight is weighing heavier and heavier on the minds of public health authorities, in government and private institutions.

The latest documentation comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, which ran from 1986 to 1998. The incidence of overweight among children between the ages of 4 and 12 increased substantially over that 12-year period, says a report in the Dec. 12 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"The extent of the trend is surprising," says the report's co-author, Howard A. Pollack, an assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. "In some groups, the percentage of American children who are overweight doubled in a 12-year period."

Overweight is defined as a body mass index (weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared) above the 95th percentile for age and sex. In 1998, 12.3 percent of white children were overweight, up from 8 percent in 1986. The incidence of overweight in African-American and Hispanic children, which was at 10 percent in each group in 1986, more than doubled by 1998 to 21.5 percent and 21.8 percent, respectively. And the relative weight of the overweight children also increased over the 12 years, so that the severity of the problem is accentuated.

The same thing is happening among American adults, and the government is trying to do something about it. A "Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity" will be released tomorrow by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Surgeon General David Satcher, according to Damon Thompson, a spokesman for the Surgeon General's office.

Overweight is a prelude to many medical problems including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, Pollack says. Asked about the cause, he says, "It's like 'Murder on the Orient Express.' There are many suspects, and they're all guilty."

He adds: "Increased consumption of high-calorie food and decreased physical activity are primary drivers of the trend. Watching more television is an important factor. So is spending less time in school at physical activity. In fact, almost every social trend seems to point in the same direction."

And Dr. Richard S. Straus, professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, co-author of the study, says in a statement, "The cause may be as intimate as the family dinner table or as seductive as television or the latest video game."

What To Do

Studies have shown that something as simple as limiting television viewing can help in weight control, Pollack says. "The best thing a parent can do is to be a good role model for children," he says.

You can learn more about childhood obesity from the American Academy of Family Physicians. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information on this disturbing trend for both adults and children.

SOURCES: Interviews with Howard A. Pollack, Ph.D, assistant professor of health management and policy, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor; Damon Thompson, spokesman, Surgeon General's office, Bethesda, Md.; Dec. 12, 2001 Journal of the American Medical Association
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