A federal study reported that in one decade, obesity in children ages 2 to 5 decreased significantly, from 14 to 8 percent. For once, I’ll allow myself to appreciate numbers at face value and hope that this report foreshadows revolution. I often take a minute to look at studies like these and pore over the numbers, examining the discrepancies between reporting and reality. I also have a general apprehension of anything survey-based – I’m trying to let that go. But these statistics from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that pertain to early childhood obesity are real and indicative of United States public health possibly turning a new leaf.
Considered a disease as of 2013, obesity is complex and interconnected with food, health care, politics and economics. The cause of obesity changes every day: We blame it on genetics, on food deserts and food access; we blame it on laziness.
Wherever its roots lie – and this changes per person – obesity is costly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated an annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. in 2008 to be as high as $147 billion, with obese individuals paying almost $1,500 more than those of “normal” weight. Furthermore, obesity is more prevalent in some groups: about 50 percent of black men and 40 percent of all Hispanics are obese. Women with lower incomes are more likely to be obese than those with higher incomes.
But the report, now published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, comes amidst heightened efforts geared toward preventing childhood obesity, thus lowering overall numbers, through initiatives that have been criticized as idealistic, unpromising and small-scale. These efforts include nutrition education, farm-to-table planning and campaigns to ensure healthy habits from a young age – to educate children about the consumption choices they will soon make.
This also comes at a time when many have expressed wariness of industrial food production, large-scale supply chains and the negative externalities that reveal the hidden costs of production that were, apparently, unforeseen. From concentrated animal feeding operations to thousand-acre plots of corn and soy, these practices are becoming more transparent daily. It seems that the trendiness of “fresh food for all” has become more of a norm than a trend. Perhaps it’s a necessity.
Policymakers and scientists alike have debated over whether anti-obesity efforts like those of Michelle Obama and those mentioned above are costly or effective. Some argue that school programs can only go so far, as a child’s habits are formed at home.
But because the first lady has ensured that she makes her programming and education available to over 10,000 childcare centers, and because of so many initiatives similar to those of the first lady, a systematic shift may have occurred. It’s at this young age that children are most likely to develop and maintain healthy habits. They’re at an age when preventable disease should remain preventable and not a given.
Of course, we must remember that this is a very small step in the right direction. There is work to be done, and there always will be. One-third of adults in this country are still obese.
Still, I’m hopeful that a decrease in early childhood obesity is a glance into the future of health in America; if we’re putting forthcoming generations on a better track, then we’ll soon see a healthier, and less costly, population.