During the past four decades, obesity rates have soared among all age groups, increasing more than four-fold among children ages 6 to 11. Today, nearly a third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. That’s more than 23 million kids and teenagers.
The childhood obesity epidemic is particularly severe in communities of color. More than 39 percent of Latino and African-American children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese, compared with about 28 percent of White children. There are also significant disparities in access to healthy foods and safe places to play. One major study of nearly 700 neighborhoods found that communities of color and racially mixed communities have access to fewer supermarkets than predominantly White communities. And communities with high levels of poverty are significantly less likely to have places where people can be physically active, such as parks, green spaces, and bike lanes.
If we don’t act to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic, we’re in danger of raising the first generation of American children who may live sicker and die younger than the generation before them. Preventing obesity during childhood is critical, because habits that last into adulthood frequently are formed during youth. Research shows that an obese older teenager has up to an 80 percent chance of becoming an obese adult.
Overweight and obese children are at higher risk than their healthy-weight peers for a host of serious illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, asthma and certain types of cancer. Obese children already are being diagnosed with health problems previously considered to be “adult” illnesses, such as Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
Obesity also poses a tremendous financial threat to our economy and our health care system. The medical cost of adult obesity in the United States is difficult to calculate, but estimates range from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion per year. Childhood obesity alone carries a huge price tag—up to $14 billion per year in direct health care costs. Retired military leaders warn that childhood obesity also threatens our national security because so many young people who want to serve in the armed forces aren’t fit to do so.
By reversing the epidemic of childhood obesity, we will make our nation healthier and stronger, save lives, ease the financial strain on our health care system, and increase economic productivity for the next generation of American workers.
What Causes Childhood Obesity?
In the simplest terms, childhood obesity results from energy imbalance—children consuming more calories than they burn through physical activity and normal growth.
The latest research shows that the environments we live in and the public policies our leaders enact directly impact the foods our children eat and how much activity they get. When schools have healthy foods and beverages in their cafeterias and vending machines, students eat better. When communities have parks and bike trails in their neighborhoods and vigorous physical education programs in their schools, children are more active. When neighborhoods have supermarkets and farmers’ markets that sell affordable healthy foods, families eat more nutritiously. But when communities are dominated by fast food, with few places to play, our children eat worse and are less active, and their health suffers. And we all pay a price—in higher health care costs and lost economic productivity.