WASHINGTON (CN) – With 17 percent of the nation’s children obese, senators convened a panel Thursday ranging from the surgeon general to a Pittsburgh Steelers running back to tackle the epidemic. “For the first time in our nation’s history, we are in danger of raising a generation of children who will live sicker and die younger than the generation before them,” said Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin.
“All the gains we have made in life expectancy are at risk,” said committee chair Harkin to the people lining the walls and squeezing into seats of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing room.
Obesity among adults has doubled over the last 30 years and now afflicts more than a third of the population, while the proportion of obese children has tripled to more than one in six. Because of this trend in youth obesity, the metabolic disease formerly known as “adult diabetes” is now simply referred to as “type II diabetes.”
The speakers pointed to larger portions, less time, increased use of technology and easy access to unhealthy food as the forces behind the epidemic.
The phenomenon carries wide-ranging consequences. Aside from the obvious health problems, obesity is costing the nation billions of dollars each year and threatens national security, panelists said.
With obesity tied to heart disease, high cholesterol, cancer, hypertension, stroke and type II diabetes, each obese child racks up roughly three times the medical costs of a normal-weight child. Treating obese children costs $14 billion annually, $3 billion of that from Medicaid.
Panelists said the costs add to the burden of a strained federal budget, roughly a quarter of which is already earmarked for health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
Dr. Joe Thompson, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity, said the high proportion of unhealthy Americans is hindering military recruitment, degrading war-readiness.
Dr. Sandra Hassink, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Obesity Leadership Workgroup, added that in the last three months, her clinic saw a 290-pound 9-year-old who suffered from obesity-related back pain and liver disease, and a third-grade boy who said he doesn’t go outside.
“Not that he doesn’t play outside,” she said. “He does not even go outside.”
Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said rural residents are more likely to be obese than urban dwellers. Also, a higher proportion of men are overweight or obese than women, at 72 percent versus 64 percent.
Benjamin noted that finding the time to cook a healthy meal or to exercise is one of the biggest problems in tackling obesity.
The speakers also pointed to larger portions. Twenty years ago, the average soda was 12 ounces, but has since grown to 20 ounces. Likewise, the average 1.5-ounce blueberry muffin from 20 years ago is dwarfed by the modern 5-ounce muffin.
Panelists cited a lack of safety on walking paths and in parks, more sedentary lifestyles and “food deserts” in poor neighborhoods where supermarkets don’t open shop as factors contributing to the obesity epidemic.
The experts largely proposed efforts to counteract these factors, including setting higher nutrition standards for food in schools and promoting supermarkets in poor neighborhoods.
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall talked about the National Football League’s campaign urging kids to be active for at least one hour a day. He urged lawmakers to let kids pursue activities they enjoy instead of forcing good habits.
Hassink concluded the session by underscoring the scale of the problem: “I don’t think there’s anything more important to any country than the health of its children,” she said.