September 09, 2010

Prevention is key to turning the tide on childhood obesity epidemic

Missouri continues to outpace most of the nation in childhood obesity.

The latest statistics show that 29 percent of Missouri high school students are overweight or obese, compared with 28 percent nationwide. Since 2005, Missouri has moved from ninth to eighth in the country in obesity rates among high school students, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

Health officials say the state’s rise in the obesity rankings is a dangerous trend that puts the health and well-being of Missourians at great risk.

“Childhood obesity is a public health crisis," said Margaret Donnelly, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. “Community leaders can help by making sure that young people have places where they can be physically active. Parents can help by making fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods easily available. Only when we have environments that support healthy living will we start to reverse this epidemic.”

To call attention to the nation’s obesity epidemic, Congress earlier this year designated September 2010 as the first National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

The American Medical Association estimates that more than 23 million children and teenagers nationwide are overweight or obese. Health experts say efforts to prevent obesity must start early before unhealthy habits are formed.

“Childhood Obesity Awareness Month supports the goals of families, schools and communities that are working to raise a healthier generation,” Donnelly said. “If we keep our kids healthy now and prevent childhood obesity, we will alleviate a major burden on our health care system while giving millions of young people the opportunity to live longer, healthier lives.”

Families are urged to focus on helping their children to establish lifelong healthy habits by eating balanced meals and snacks and participating regularly in physical activity. New mothers can reduce the risk of their children becoming obese by breastfeeding. Studies show that the longer that babies are breastfed, the lower their odds of becoming overweight as teens or adults.

“The early period of life – including the prenatal months and infancy to age 5 – is a key time to prevent childhood obesity,” said Pat Simmons, nutrition specialist with the state health department. “If we can reduce childhood obesity, we will eventually reduce obesity in adults.”

Research has found that a mother’s diet and weight gain during pregnancy could influence her child’s risk for obesity and other chronic diseases later in life. Infant and toddler feeding practices have also been shown to affect a child’s weight status.

“It is much easier to prevent obesity than to try to treat it,” Donnelly said.

Obese young people have an 80 percent chance of becoming obese adults. As a result, they are at greater risk for developing health problems in adulthood, including heart disease, diabetes, sleep apnea, stroke, several types of cancer and arthritis.

Each year, obesity costs Missouri nearly $2 billion in direct medical costs alone. About nine percent of total medical costs in America are due to obesity-related illnesses.

Events and activities will be held across the country in September to increase awareness of childhood obesity and ways to combat it. Information and resources are available at