Everyday life has become so busy that it can be hard to follow through on the things we want to do to ensure the health and well being of our children. Most of us make excuses like "I'll start offering fruits as snacks soon" or "I'm too tired to argue about turning off the TV." The prevalence of obesity in the United States has more than doubled in children and more than tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, proving we simply can't afford to wait to reverse the trends.
Today, nearly one third of children in America are medically overweight or obese, and each year an increasing number of children are treated for obesity-related health problems like Type 2 diabetes and cholesterol abnormalities. In fact, it is no longer unusual to diagnose a child with a form of diabetes that was once so uncommon in children that it was known as "adult onset." High blood pressure is more widespread among obese teens and may lead to the development of heart disease at a very young age. The societal impacts of this healthcare dilemma are significant. The costs for treating the chronic conditions resulting from obesity are on the rise, and become even more profound long term. Most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said obesity is costing the country nearly $150 billion annually.
The problem of childhood obesity is particularly concerning and simultaneously vexing to solve because the issue with childhood obesity is not children, but the environment in which they live. The answer is not to put kids on a diet, but rather to create an environment where healthy food choices and activity are the default. As their child's greatest influencers, parents and caregivers must be role models, and they need to take a vested interest in the nutritional and activity choices of their children. This is not easy. Parents and caregivers are constantly bombarded with messages about what is healthy, what makes a good choice, and expectations at times can seem insurmountable. However, the tools for success are quite accessible and, while grounded in science, are based more on good common sense than one might expect. They are as follows: 1. Focus food choices on nutritious foods. 2. Do not withhold treats. 3. Ration screen time. 4. Have at least one hour of activity time per day. 5. Apply these changes to the entire family.
While straightforward, the real challenge for parents and caregivers is to commit to adhering to these rules with consistency and determination. For many, this may require developing a new paradigm within the home that will take stamina and a new awareness about what is working and what is not. Most importantly, these rules must be adopted and sustained in concert to achieve meaningful and lasting impact. Changing habits and behaviors is not easy and will not happen overnight. It will require resolve and patience. Fortunately, there are many high quality resources to help parents and caregivers implement and continue these new and healthy habits, and more and more public and private entities are working collaboratively to create and make available the tools necessary for long-term success.
Increased public policy attention has been paid to the roles that schools can - and should - play. There are proposals to ensure that local communities have adequate exercise and physical activities facilities. There is wide recognition that food companies should play a crucial role in proactively helping direct children and families toward healthier choices.
Most recently, First Lady Michelle Obama and the members of the President's Task Force on Childhood Obesity convened a number of the key stakeholders involved in the issue at the White House to discuss some of the critical challenges and identify some potential next steps. It was a privilege for Weight Watchers to participate and contribute to these significant discussions, where a major focus was on the essential role parents and caregivers must play to ensure that healthier habits are adopted now in order to impact their children's well being today and into the future.
Ultimately, the choices our society makes today will have an even greater effect 10 to 20 years from now. The reason for this is that many of the chronic conditions caused by obesity begin to evidence themselves when we reach our 40's, and they become even more severe as we reach our 60's. Many of these chronic conditions are actually being seen in people under 40, which underscores the urgency of the issue.
Addressing childhood obesity takes a long- term commitment. No single entity - be it a private company, non-profit or government body - has all of the answers or tools to fully conquer this problem. But it is in all of our best interests to work together to support the hard work we all have as parents and caregivers to create a healthier environment for our children.
David Kirchhoff is CEO of Weight Watchers, Inc., and Dr. Lisa Thornton is a Pediatrician at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. A new book by Weight Watchers with a Foreword by Dr. Thornton entitled Eat! Move! Play! A Parent's guide for Raising Healthy, Happy Kids was published in April.