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San Diego Conference Tackles Child Obesity Epidemic

January 02, 2003
by Sarah Yang

Berkeley - The start of the new year is traditionally when many of us begin working off holiday meals and resolving to eat healthier and exercise more.

But for an unprecedented number of children in the United States, being overweight is a struggle the whole year through. And experts say California is the state with the highest number of children who are overweight or obese.

Next week, this growing crisis will bring together nearly 1,000 educators, public health professionals and nutrition experts for the 2003 California Childhood Obesity Conference in San Diego. Speakers will include U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona; Dr. Francine Kaufman, president of the American Diabetes Association; and Eric Bost, under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The three-day conference, held Jan. 6-8, is being convened in response to the serious consequences of childhood obesity. The Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Department of Health Services' Primary Care and Family Health Division are co-hosting the event.

"We'll be exploring how environmental, family and clinical approaches can address the childhood obesity epidemic in our California communities," said Pat Crawford, co-director of the Center for Weight and Health and cooperative extension specialist at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. "All three approaches need to work in concert if we are going to effectively stem the increase of overweight children."

Since the first California Childhood Obesity Conference was held in March 2001, new studies and media reports have shined the spotlight on a topic that health professionals have been noticing over the past few decades.

In October 2002, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued results from a 1999-2000 survey, which found that nationwide, more than 15 percent of children ages 6 to 19 were overweight. That figure shows a 200 percent increase over the past three decades.

"Through the nutrition assistance programs - including the food stamp, WIC (Women, Infant and Children), school breakfast and lunch programs - we have an extraordinary opportunity to reach millions of children with nutrition and lifestyle messages that will help them enjoy longer, healthier lives," said Bost of the USDA. "In 2001 alone, the USDA provided over $6 billion in fruits and vegetables through food benefits and commodities."

In California, nearly 40 percent of children are physically unfit and more than 25 percent are overweight, according to a recent report by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. UC Berkeley's Crawford served on the scientific panel for the report, which used data from the 2001 California Physical Fitness Test to highlight the problem of child obesity in the state.

"Forget the image of granola-loving Californians who love to surf, bike or play beach volleyball," said Joanne Ikeda, co-director of the Center for Weight and Health and cooperative extension specialist at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. "When it comes to the prevalence of child obesity, California outpaces the national average."

In 2001, Gov. Gray Davis signed Senate Bill 19, which establishes nutritional standards for food at elementary schools and bans the sale of carbonated beverages in elementary and middle schools. The goal of the bill is to improve the nutrition and eating habits of California school children, but concern exists that current economic troubles will jeopardize its implementation.

In the meantime, Crawford will soon start a study funded by the National Institutes of Health looking at the health effects of removing highly sweetened beverages from high school snack bars and vending machines.

"Because more and more children are becoming overweight or obese, we are increasingly finding children with Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and joint damage, all health problems that were once seen only in adults," said State Health Director Diana M. Bontá. "These children are also at greater risk for chronic health problems later in life. It is vitally important that we find appropriate solutions now."

Studies have shown that children from families that are low-income, African-American or Latino are at greatest risk for being overweight. While it is well established that poor nutrition is linked to lower academic performance, a recent study by the National Association for Sport & Physical Education showed that physically fit children performed better academically.

The emphasis at the conference will be on establishing patterns of good nutrition and physical activity early in a child's life. Conference topics will include information about increasing availability to healthy foods, promoting positive body image, reducing TV viewing time, countering influences from the media, the importance of role models and reinventing food assistance programs to improve diets of low-income families.