Answers About the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

As the nation’s top public health physician, Rear Admiral Steven K. Galson, M.D., M.P.H, launched the Healthy Youth for a Healthy Future Initiative, which brought national attention to the complex issue of childhood obesity prevention. A leading authority on childhood obesity, Dr. Galson served as the Acting Surgeon General of the United States from October 2007 through July 2009.  In this installment of our month-long childhood obesity series, he talks about what can be done to help kids get healthy.

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DR. GALSON: It's a combination between people not eating well, eating too many calories, and decreases in the level of physical activity for the average young person. We know that in the United States the average number of hours that our kids are spending stationary, in front of a television or in front of a computer screen, has grown hugely. The average number of hours is six hours per day and that's average. On the calorie side, we know about the proliferation of fast food. We know about more two-income families, food being eaten more frequently outside the home. So our diets are going downhill as well. We also know that the environment has changed dramatically. We're building suburbs without sidewalks. We're designing our cities so that people are required to drive in cars rather than being able to bike. And so the environment is also very, very important. Our buildings, frequently, it's impossible to get from one place to the next without taking an elevator. So the environment and policies are very important as well as physical activity and diet itself on a personal level.

We know that when young people start out their lives, spend their formative years overweight or obese, they're more likely to be overweight and obese when they get older. And we know that that condition is linked to an increased risk of a whole host of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and bone and joint problems. That can really be debilitating and can decrease the capacity of our kids to really reach the level of success, and the goals that we want for them, and that they want themselves. So overweight and obesity can really be an impediment to the success of our young people. It has to do with understanding what a healthy diet is, taking steps to consume a healthier diet to help the young people around you eat better. Number two, it has to do with getting more physical activity. Our kids should be getting at least an hour of physical activity every single day. And adults should get at least 2 and 1/2 hours a week, in addition bone and joint strengthening activity in both our young people and adults.And if we would just do this, if we would just get adequate amounts of physical activity and eat better,
we would see a big difference.

I would say, first of all, make sure that you get the recommended amount of physical activity every single week. So for a young person, it's an hour a day. For an adult it's 2 and 1/2 hours a week. After dinner instead of going down, turning on the television, watching a sports game, or having your kids turn on a video game or sit in front of the computer, turn all those things off, go outside, take a walk, take a bike ride, throw a ball around, throw a Frisbee around. Even something as straightforward and simple as walking for half an hour a day with your kids can make a difference. And then, be aware of what you're eating and make sure that you're eating a healthy diet, five fruits and vegetables a week. For an adult, about 2000 calories. If you don't know what you're eating, it's hard to do that. Read the labels. Ask when you're in a restaurant, what's the calorie amount of these dishes. What's the fat content?

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