Can Government Efforts Help Parents Combat Childhood Obesity?

Staff - - 07/19/2011

While a report released earlier this month indicates that New York ranks 41st in the nation for adult obesity rates, the state ranks 16th in childhood obesity rates. The ranking is a cause for concern for everyone from mothers and fathers to policy officials and health care providers.

According to "F as in Fat, How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2011," a report compiled by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 17 percent of New York's kids are obese. About one-quarter of adults are considered obese. An individual is considered obese when their body mass index (BMI) is 30 or above.

Mississippi ranked first in the report for both adult and childhood obesity. About 21 percent of children in the state are considered obese. Oregon, by contrast, ranked last with a childhood obesity rate of 9.6 percent.

The Trust for America's Health focuses on the health care costs associated with obesity in the report, whose authors recommend more government investment in obesity prevention programs.

The monetary costs of health care associated with obesity are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, $147 billion was spent on such care in 2008. And according to a report in the same year by the office of the New York State Comptroller, health care costs for New York's 1.1 million obese children hit about $242 million.

The comptroller notes that since 1978, the obesity rate for kids in New York ages two to five and 12 to 19 has tripled. The obesity rate for ages six to 11 has quadrupled.

An ongoing debate exists between those who believe that personal choice should prevail in this situation, while others say the government should establish programs and services to curb increasing rates of obesity, both amongst children and adults.

In my most recent Green Parenting column, I discussed the issue of advertising directed at children and how such practices have been attributed to children eating junk food and leading sedentary lifestyles. I discussed an effort by the American Academy of Pediatrics to convince government entities to do more to regulate the types of foods that are advertised to children.

And the comments rolled in.

One commenter said, "Who is in control here? If you don't want your children to eat stuff that is bad for them, don't give it to them. Are the children the ones placing the items on the conveyor belt and swiping their credit cards in order to pay for the items? Stop trying to get the (nanny) state involved in all aspects of my family's life."

Another commenter said, "This is America's biggest issue, people like this tellin' us all how to live and how to raise our children, 'cause we must all be morons. The government's become adept at this slop."

These commenters might be surprised to know that I believe that parents hold the ultimate control over how their children eat. That's partially why I don't have television in my home, because I don't want my two-year-old to be indoctrinated by commercials for unhealthy processed foods like Lucky Charms and Fruit Roll-Ups. Of course no one is immune to the effects of advertising, but parents can reduce childrens' exposure to it as much as they can, and it is our right as parents to do that.

I also agree that the government is, largely, an overly burdensome entity on the American public. Where we differ though is in the recognition that the government isn't disappearing anytime soon. Thus I believe the public should urge it to fund issues of public health through more strict control of corporate advertising instead of, let's say, paying senators and house members more than 10 times the federal poverty level.

The other burden of advocating for personal freedom is acknowledging the importance of education, which starts at home and extends to our schools, where it's often the norm to see vending machines filled with soda, candy bars and chips. Of course people like Sarah Palin can rally supporters in the name of eating whatever one pleases, but true personal freedom exists in choosing to stay away from fast food because it's bad for our health.

I'm not telling anyone how to raise their children. I believe in personal liberties as much as the next American, but I also believe in doing what I can, through my writing in this case, to spotlight issues where one's choices might be influenced by those with unabashed profit motives. Of course you have the right to not to feed your kids fruits and vegetables, but if they end up with type-II diabetes, should it be the public's burden to pay for your ill-informed decisions?

Whether you lean left or right, it's undeniable that this nation faces an obesity epidemic, and it's hitting home here in New York, especially for many of our children, the lives of whom could be cut short from health complications--diabetes, cancer and heart disease--associated with obesity. Government programs play a role in educating parents and children about the importance of eating healthy and exercising, but such efforts are small compared to the ordinary choices that we make on an everyday basis.

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