Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Posted on March 7, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday, P-cubed News, Roosevelt House Faculty Forum

Medical researchers recently released some hopeful news in the nation’s battle against obesity. According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates among children 2 to 5 years dropped by 43 percent over the past decade.

While this is an important development, obesity rates still remain at epidemic- levels in the United States and are particularly rising in certain demographics, including women over 60 years old. Among U.S. adults, more than one-third (35.7 percent) are considered obese while approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years (or 12.5 million) are obese. Among children 2- to 5-year olds, one in 12 was obese, while rates for black children (one in nine) and Hispanic children (one in six) were significantly higher.

The health impacts of obesity are severe; higher ranges of weight are typically associated with certain diseases like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, certain kinds of cancers, and stroke. Medical costs in the U.S. related to obesity totaled $147 billion in 2008. Although obesity was prevalent throughout all regions of the country, there are some clear trends in regional variation. In 2012, higher rates of obesity were found in the Midwest (29.5%) and the South (29.4%) with the Northeast (25.3%) and the West (25.1%) showing somewhat lower trends. It is important to point out that no region had obesity prevalence rates less than 20%.

Luckily, there are proven strategies to combat obesity, which include encouraging women to breastfeed their babies and implementing policies targeted specifically to change food habits like avoiding sugar sweetened food. One such policy is a program called the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a federal program that provides assistance to poor families with incomes below 185 percent of the U.S. Poverty Income Guidelines, which has allocated greater resources for fresh fruits and vegetables through the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. Children between the ages of 3 and 4 participating in the WIC program were found to have lower rates of obesity.

In New York City alone, there have been a handful of successful policies implemented to tackle the obesity epidemic. While former Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial policy to ban the sale of sugary sodas larger than 16 ounces in restaurants and movie theaters was deemed unconstitutional by an appeals court after beverage makers and other businesses challenged the authority of the mayoral-appointed health board, other recent Bloomberg policies included ending the common use of trans fats in restaurant cooking and launching a Healthy Bodegas Initiative, which brought more fruits and vegetables to corner store shelves in poor neighborhoods in East Harlem and the South Bronx.

While the United States is one of the global leaders in obesity rates, obesity-related illnesses have increased at an alarming rate across the world. In 2008, there were 1.4 billion adults who were overweight; 11% were obese. Most of the world’s obese populations are found in wealthy countries. For instance, in OECD countries, one in 2 adults is overweight; 1 in 6 is obese. Projections place obesity to rise in certain countries by 1 percent a year over the next decade.

Public policies to advance healthy lifestyles make a difference. The new data showing a decline in obesity rates among preschool children provides hope that consistent messaging about the medical implications of poor eating habits and the lack of adequate exercise can make a big difference in changing behaviors. To that end, schools play a significant role in raising a new generation of American children who are far more aware of the dangers of unhealthy food and providing a nurturing environment to support early good habits relating to food and exercise. The battle against American’s obesity epidemic can be won by an army of the nation’s youngest children.

Dr. Shyama Venkateswar is the Distinguished Lecturer and Director of the Public Policy Program. Follow her on Twitter: @DrSVenkateswarlike the Public Policy Program at Roosevelt House on Facebook and follow @PcubedatRH on Twitter.

The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.