Advice and action

Eating unbalanced meals at lunch every day affects a child’s ability to concentrate in the classroom: Cheeseburgers and french fries do not provide the energy and nutrients needed to grow and learn. Even more, poor nutrition has lasting effects on a child’s health.

Over the past few decades, the number of children who are overweight or obese has increased dramatically. Children are now eating 300 more calories per day than they did in 1980, according to Michael Conard, project director of the 2008 study “Curbing Childhood Obesity.” In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 12.4 percent of children ages 2 to 5 were obese, compared to just 5 percent in 1980. Alarmingly, almost 18 percent of children ages 12 to 19 were obese in 2006, compared with 5 percent in 1980. Childhood obesity can lead to lifelong health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, sleep disorders and physical ailments caused by carrying too much weight on still-developing bones.

A number of parents, pediatricians and even politicians are stepping in to slow and ultimately prevent this growing health epidemic. To promote her “Let's Move” campaign, Michelle Obama has appeared with former NFL star Tiki Barber and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to promote healthier lifestyles for children. She hopes to team up with Disney, NBC-TV and Viacom to promote nutrition and wellness education to children through the medium they know best, television.

Conard focused his work in "Curbing Childhood Obesity" on changing the infrastructure of the food distribution system. Kubi Ackerman, who worked with Conard on the project, said that the problem lies mostly in how food is distributed. The routes of highway and train systems across the country are such that it is easier to ship apples grown in Washington state to New York City than to transport apples from upstate New York, Ackerman said. But the Washington apples are doused with preservative chemicals to stay fresh, which detract from their nutritional quality and ultimately harm the apple’s consumers.

Bill Stinson, a farmer in Williamstown, Mass., understands the importance of eating locally. He has partnered with Williams College to provide students with fresh fruits and vegetables, so that students avoid the preservatives and chemicals that can cause disease and health problems. “If we produce good food and make it accessible," Stinson said. “We’ll have a lot less hospital bills.”

The medical community has begun to focus on childhood obesity both in and outside of the doctor's office. Dr. Patricia Hametz, associate clinical professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University, heads the grant-funded program, Choosing Healthy and Active Lifestyles for Kids, which focuses on creating changes in the community to foster healthier environments. Hametz coordinates wellness fairs, encourages physical activity and works with a community task force to promote nutrition. “Because it’s such a problem, it’s not sufficient to address in a pediatric practice,” Hametz said. “Working in a community environment and changing the environment in which kids live is potentially a much more successful strategy.”

As the concern over childhood obesity continues to grow, people are working together to remind children that food is fuel. After all, food is not just about what tastes good. It is also about getting the right nutrients to energize growing bodies.