Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Solutions to child obesity

To make it easier for children to eat healthfully and move more, local governments in towns and cities across the country need to help create a better environment, a new report says.

Children and their families should have access to grocery stores that offer plenty of healthful food such as fruits and vegetables, and schools shouldn't be surrounded by fast-food restaurants. Children should be able to ride their bikes or walk safely to school, and they should have safe places to play afterward, says the report out today from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council.

The healthy choice should be the easy choice, says family physician Eduardo Sanchez, chairman of the expert committee that prepared the report and vice president and chief medical officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas.

"That statement captures the essence of this particular challenge. Too often the easiest thing to do is the least healthy, and that goes for kids."

The environment influences the decisions people make, and local regulations can make a difference in the fight against childhood obesity, he says.

About a third of the nation's children ages 2 to 19 — or about 23 million kids — are overweight or obese. That puts them at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and other health problems.

Some cities and towns in the USA already have made changes that make living healthfully easier. Other community officials need to figure out their areas' biggest problems and work on those first, the report's authors say.

Among their suggestions are several dealing with access to healthful food in underserved areas. They urge communities to offer financial incentives to the owners of corner markets and convenience stores in poor areas so they can carry more affordable healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables, and fat-free and low-fat dairy.

They also suggest offering tax credits, grants, loans and other economic incentives to attract new, bigger supermarkets and grocery stores to underserved communities to increase their access to healthful foods.

Several studies show that some people, especially in poorer communities, don't have easy access to a major grocery store, so they have to rely on small stores, convenience markets and hybrid gas stations where there is a smaller selection of healthful food items at higher prices.

"I believe (benefits from) the relative costs involved far outweigh the cost of doing nothing," Sanchez says. "Obesity in children leads to some diseases, and the cost of their medical care will go up fairly quickly."

Many of the strategies have other benefits. For instance, the report urges better community policing, which may increase safety, and better grocery stores could create more jobs, he says. "These are worthwhile investments because the gain is more than the upfront expense."

Similar ideas for changing the environment were discussed this summer at the Weight of the Nation meeting in Washington, D.C., which was sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others.

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