Curbing Childhood Obesity
By Ken Walker –
The year before Jamie Oliver came to Huntington, West Virginia to film his award-winning ABC mini-series, the area’s obesity epidemic cast a bleak shadow over the state.
How bleak? In our book, Winning the Food Fight, Steve Willis wrote about a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control that reviewed a five-county, three-state region with Huntington at the epicenter.
The Tri-State was first in the nation in adults who did not exercise (31 percent), first in the prevalence of heart disease (22 percent), and first in diabetes (13 percent). Nearly half of those over 65 did not have one of their natural teeth.
The area also placed first in high blood pressure, circulation problems, kidney disease, vision problems, sleeping disorders, and depression.
“While other cities may come close to our percentages in some categories, no one else touched the whopping 46 percent of adults who were obese,” Steve wrote. “Think about that. Nearly one of every two adults in our area was obese. Not just overweight, but obese.”
The efforts Steve’s church made to address the problem led to Oliver visiting the area, and ultimately to our book. Yet, with three years passing since the mini-series aired, it is reasonable to ask whether it made a long-term difference.
In a word: Yes. This spring I blogged about Huntington earning the nickname, “Runnington” because of all the 5K and 10K races that sprang up in its aftermath.
In mid-July, more good news surfaced under the headline, “State slowly curbing childhood obesity epidemic.”
This news spread nationwide, since reports about it originated with the Voices for Health Kids Conference in Washington, D.C. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association organized the summit.
West Virginia is one of only five states seeing a decline since 2005, with the rate of obese fifth-graders dropping 8.6 percent. The other four states: Nebraska, California, North Carolina and New Mexico.
While at 27 percent the rate in West Virginia is still too high, the news is worth celebrating, as the chairman of an advisory committee to the Voices for Health Kids initiative noted.
“Considering childhood obesity has been a virtual tsunami, any reversal in any community is an exciting development,” Bill Roach commented.
“That’s really why we wanted to bring these communities together…to educate others as to how they’ve been able to do it…We’d love to see a 90 percent reduction. But the point is we’re seeing a reversal in the trend.”
Our nation’s love affair with dining out, fast food, and convenience items means this will always be an uphill battle. And, while personal discipline is part of the picture, a specialist in treating childhood obesity points out the food industry is also to blame.
In his book, Fat Chance, Dr. Robert Lustig observes that 80 percent of the thousands of food products in the U.S. have added sugar, fueling obesity and its attendant health problems.
Real Life Impact
The impact of sugar overload appeared in the story about the conference, with one West Virginia doctor mentioning that she wasn’t trained in treating Type 2 diabetes 20 years ago. Now she is getting a re-education to learn to tackle adult diseases in children.
“I had a 2-year-old patient that weighed over 100 pounds,” said Dr. Jamie Jeffrey. “The child was too obese to walk, and she was on medication for sleep apnea. So it’s really not only the number of kids affected but the severity of the disease.”
Among the steps the state is taking is taking is building more parks and walking or biking paths, and supporting community gardens to grow more vegetables.
Both are evident in Huntington, where community gardens are springing up across the region. In addition, parts of a 23-mile trail system have already opened.
The Paul Ambrose Trail for Health is named for a doctor from the area who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. A noted researcher on the impact of obesity, Ambrose had served as an advisor to former U.S. Surgeon General David Hatcher.
If we continue to see increasing signs of progress like the one noted at the Voices conference, this trail will be a most fitting legacy.