In this week’s guest post, Dr. Stephen Cook describes the childhood overweight and obesity epidemic based on first-hand experience with patients in his clinical practice. He also discusses the important role that school nutrition plays in both short- and long-term health outcomes among our nation’s children.
Dr. Stephen Cook, M.D., Ph.D., American Heart Association Volunteer
It’s a hard truth to swallow, but childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions – and diet has a lot to do with it. In the city of Rochester, where I currently live and work, almost half of all children are overweight or obese. In fact, one of the patients in my practice was already considered obese at the tender age of three. By the time he turned four, his BMI was over the 98th percentile for his age.
Unfortunately, as a pediatrician, I see many overweight and obese children. But, I believe there are ways we can defeat these disturbing trends if we intervene when the child is still young. In this case, we talked with the patient’s mother and she agreed to make changes to his physical activity levels and his diet. We then tracked his growth for almost three years and his weight gain slowed down. Eventually, he lost two pounds and because his height was increasing, he is now in the 69th percentile – the normal range for his age.
It’s clear to me that behavior patterns are set at a young age. Small changes early in life make a big difference in our later years. While many parents play their part to help kids eat healthy at home, their efforts can be undermined during the school day, when kids consume the majority of their daily calories.
I wish all children were encouraged to develop healthy eating habits at home, but speaking from experience, this isn’t always the case. At the University of Rochester’s Golisano Children's Hospital, where I practice, about two thirds of our 13,000 patients are living in poverty. The children we serve attend the Rochester City School District, and nearly 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. For some of these kids, it’s the only healthy meal they will eat all day.
That’s why the nutrition standards put in place by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) are so critical for the health of our nation’s young people. A 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine, a highly respected, independent science-based organization, supports every standard the act requires. For instance, the HHFKA includes a provision to lower the amount of salt allowed in school meals over a decade. Without this reduction, more kids will develop high blood pressure that could lead to heart disease and stroke before they reach adulthood. This is particularly alarming because I am already seeing young patients with type 2 diabetes, hypertension and fatty liver disease – diseases that I used to see only in adults.
The HHFKA sets the stage for our schools to not only combat obesity, but prevent children from getting the very chronic diseases that are associated with being overweight or obese. I am pleased that kids are now eating more fruits and vegetables and less junk food in schools, thanks to the HHFKA. That’s exactly the type of behavior changes we need to promote in the school setting to stop obesity in its tracks.
I feel so strongly about this topic that I testified at an Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee hearing convened by Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., on June 12. As a children’s health expert and American Heart Association volunteer, I described the current childhood obesity epidemic, shed some light on the costs of treatment, and explained how school meals are a front-end investment to keep our children healthy.
Even though 90 percent of schools are meeting these standards, some want to roll them back or get rid of them altogether. It is my hope that the tremendous progress we have made will not be undone. We must remember that children’s health is at the heart of the HHFKA. This law is essential for protecting their current and future health and for the health of our nation.