Child Obesity Initiative

Last month, First Lady Michelle Obama launched Let’s Move[1], a joint initiative of the White House and other government agencies that aims to reduce the rate of childhood obesity in the United States. (A video of Obama explaining the program can be viewed on its Web site.) The rate of childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years, with almost a third of children now classified as overweight or obese. As The New York Times explains[2], Obama has been working on the plan for almost a year, consulting experts in nutrition, exercise, education, and government to determine the most effective strategy. Parts of the program include an agreement by the country’s three largest school lunch providers to reduce fat and sugar in their meals, as well as television ads in which professional athletes will promote “60 Minutes of Play a Day.” The program will provide, through the Web and other venues, resources to parents on healthy eating, cooking, and living. It will also encourage voluntary participation of schools in food and exercise programs.

One thing the program does not emphasize, however, is the individual behavior of parents or children. According to the Times article, Obama and her aides determined that such a strategy could backfire by coming across as scolding, and that the effort should focus instead on changing how environmental factors affect children’s food choices and physical activity. Not everyone agrees with this omission, of course; a “Patient Money” column[3] in the Times Health section a few days later emphasizes the responsibility parents have — and the negligence they can display — in looking after their children’s weight, as well as the financial and health benefits of fostering a healthy household.

This initiative is being launched just as a new study[4], published in The New England Journal of Medicine, describes the lasting effects of obesity within certain American Indian children. Obesity in childhood, with an average age of about 11, was associated with more than twice the rate of death before the age of 55. High blood pressure and impaired glucose tolerance, or prediabetes[5], in childhood were also associated with premature death (none of the children in the study had full-blown diabetes[6]).

What do you think — is Michelle Obama’s plan a worthwhile endeavor? Should it take a harder line on parental responsibility for childhood obesity? Or could it, as some[7] people[8] worry, have the unintended effect of stigmatizing overweight children? Should the government go even further, mandating the removal of soft drinks and unhealthy snacks from schools (as many school districts have already done)? Leave a comment below!

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