Michelle Obama: Childhood obesity a ‘public health crisis'

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Unless something is done to reduce childhood obesity, America's children are on track to live shorter lives than their parents for the first time in U.S. history, the nation's top health officials and first lady Michelle Obama said Thursday.

"Obesity in this country is nothing less than a public health crisis," Mrs. Obama said at an event at a YMCA in Alexandria as she prepares to formally launch a national campaign against childhood obesity in the next several weeks. "It's threatening our children, it's threatening our families and, more importantly, it's threatening the future of this nation."

As many as one in three children are overweight or obese, according to a report U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin released Thursday in an appearance with Mrs. Obama.

The situation is even worse in Georgia.

The state ranks No. 3 in childhood obesity, behind only Mississippi and Arkansas, according to a report last year by the nonprofit Trust for America's Health. More than 37 percent of Georgians aged 10-17 are obese, according to the group.

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At Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Dr. Mark Wulkan sees the problem firsthand. As the hospital's chief surgeon, he oversees gastric bypasses, lap band procedures and other surgeries on obese children.

"We do one or two a month … but in reality, I could do a few of these every week," said Wulkan, who also teaches surgery at Emory University. Childhood obesity, he said, "is a problem that's been growing since at least the 1990s, to where it now truly is a crisis."

Mrs. Obama said her crusade against childhood obesity began on a personal level. After her pediatrician warned that her two daughters' body mass indexes were "getting off-balance," she said she started making subtle changes in their diet -- replacing sugary drinks with water, reducing portion sizes, cutting back on burgers.

She gave few details on the national campaign she is planning. However, the surgeon general's report included a laundry list of recommendations, including:

  • Requiring students from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 to take physical education.
  • Requiring child care providers to offer at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day.
  • Requiring schools to develop comprehensive wellness plans that include policies to offer kids more nutritious lunches.

Many schools have reduced PE classes, recess and other activities because of budget cuts. At the same time, the recession has caused many cash-strapped families to forgo healthier foods in favor of cheaper, less nutritious meals, Mrs. Obama said.

But Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius cautioned that not addressing childhood obesity now will cost the country in the future.

Citing figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Sebelius said the United States now spends about $1 of every $10 in health care dollars treating obesity-related problems -- twice what it spent on such problems in 1998. Each year, she said, the country spends nearly $150 billion on obesity-related health issues -- more than it spends on treating cancer.

"The unhealthier we are as a nation, the more our health care costs will continue to rise, and the less competitive we will be globally," Sebelius said. "We have not only a moral obligation, but I would say an economic imperative to begin to make a change."

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