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Tackling the childhood obesity epidemic

Jason Eberhart-Phillips

Children in El Dorado County are healthier today than ever before.

Vaccines have virtually eliminated many of the common childhood infections of the past. Improved sanitation, advances in medical care, and effective new safety measures like car seats and bike helmets have drastically reduced the risk of disease, injury and death among our children.

But all of these gains in children’s health could soon be undone by the epidemic of obesity.



Our children are gaining weight at an alarming rate. Since the 1970s, the prevalence of obesity nationwide has doubled in children aged 2 to 5 years and in adolescents aged 12 to 19 years. Among kids aged 6 to 11 years it has more than tripled!

Unless we reverse these trends with better nutrition and more physical activity, one child in five will be visibly obese by 2010. A newly released obesity- prevention plan for California outlines steps to avoid this outcome through major changes across society, reminiscent of the successful campaign against tobacco. Are we ready to fight this new battle for the sake of our kids?



The health effects of childhood obesity described in the new document make for grim reading. As the pounds pile on, many children are now developing chronic conditions once seen only in adults: high blood pressure, insulin resistance, liver and gallbladder disease, breathing obstructions during sleep, menstrual abnormalities, impaired balance and orthopedic problems.

These disorders, along with obesity itself, often track into adulthood, leading to early disability and death.

Perhaps the most alarming upshot of the obesity epidemic in children is the rapidly escalating increase in “adult-onset” diabetes among young people. This difficult, life-long disease, which is almost always due to excess weight, is 10 times more common among children and adolescents now than it was 20 years ago. Because of obesity, one child in three born today is expected to develop diabetes at some time during life.

In addition to these grave physical consequences, childhood obesity also has social and emotional impacts. Obese children often suffer from low self-esteem, negative body image and depression as a result of stigmatization and hurtful stereotyping. These effects can extend into adulthood, especially for girls. When obese girls grow up, they tend to complete fewer years of school and they earn less money than girls of normal weight.

Speaking of money, adult obesity already costs our country more than $100 billion a year in excess health care expenses. Today’s obese kids could add significantly to that outlay in the future. Who is going to pay?

But the real cost of childhood obesity is more than financial: it kills. Our kids belong to the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy could well be shorter than that of their parents. No wonder that childhood obesity is ranked by public health experts throughout America as the most critical health threat so far in the 21st century.

How should concerned adults in El Dorado County respond to the epidemic of childhood obesity? What can businesses, schools, health care providers and government agencies in our county do together to prevent obesity in our kids?

Parents can play an important role, by eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages from their kids’ diets, by serving more fruits and vegetables at home, by setting limits on television and video-game time, and by engaging their kids in family activities that involve movement. But parents cannot shoulder the burden by themselves. A community-wide effort is required.

The new statewide obesity prevention plan recommends several approaches for local action. These include public education campaigns focused on healthy eating and active living, grassroots organizing for walkable community policies, advocacy for healthier food choices and quality physical education in schools, and stronger public health leadership in coordinating local obesity control efforts.

As health officer, prevention of childhood obesity in El Dorado County is one of my top priorities. If you are concerned about the health impacts of obesity on kids in our county, I invite you join the discussion with me and the rest of the Public Health Department as we begin to develop a local obesity strategy in the coming months.

Please register your interest in working with us on this problem, and send me your ideas for solutions at: jeberhart-phillips@ edcgov.us.

– Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D., is health officer for El Dorado County.


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