Without effective intervention, childhood obesity will dramatically impact all children’s futures, resulting in deep social, physical, and economic costs for our society as a whole. Currently, childhood obesity is expected to result in the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy is shorter than that of their parents.
Fortunately, growing awareness and attention to the crisis is leading to action. These efforts take a variety of forms and address everything from individual decision-making about food choices and physical activity to system-wide policy reform.
Overweight children are much more likely to develop severe health issues such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, sleep apnea and asthma. Additionally, being overweight often undermines children’s social and emotional well-being by increasing the likelihood that they will be stigmatized by their peers, thus lowering their self-esteem and interfering with their academic achievement and successful transition to adulthood.
Beyond the human toll, the economic costs of obesity are staggering. For example, medical expenses attributable to obesity cost Californians $7.7 billion each year. Moreover, these costs are increasing rapidly. Between 1999 and 2005, charges for obesity-related hospitalizations almost doubled.
While there is clear consensus that the epidemic must be addressed, the sheer number and scope of contributing factors—from the prevalence of fast-food restaurants, to unhealthy food advertising targeted to children, to limited opportunities for physical activities, to new time pressures on families that limit healthy eating—makes it very difficult to do so.
Figure: The Complexity of the Childhood Obesity Issue
(Click to enlarge image)
The good news, however, is that many steps can be taken now to combat childhood obesity. These include:
These steps are best taken in concert, with collaboration across multiple systems. But, research suggests that even small changes can make a difference.