Today, when first lady Michelle Obama speaks to the National PTA Legislative Conference about her White House obesity initiative, she’ll have strong backup from two new studies asserting that obesity prevention should begin early in children’s lives.
In February, Mrs. Obama launched Let’s Move, a comprehensive campaign that focuses on improving meals in schools, increasing access to affordable and nutritious food, raising children’s level of physical activity, and giving families the tools and information to make healthy choices. Now researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have released extensive surveys focusing on early childhood obesity and risk factors for potential heart disease among children.
The Harvard Study followed 1,343 white, 355 black, and 128 Hispanic pregnant women through their children’s first five years. The researchers found that risk factors leading to higher rates of obesity begin as early as pregnancy, especially among African-American and Hispanic children. The study suggests that preschool-age minority children drink more sugary beverages and eat more fast food than Caucasian kids. Data also indicated that televisions are more prevalent in the bedrooms of minority children. In a statement, Elsie Taveras, M.D., M.P.H., lead author of the study, and assistant professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, said that during the time period before age 2, including pregnancy, nearly every risk factor was disproportionately higher among minority kids.
The researchers at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed 16,335 children, ages 1-17, from 1999 to 2006, and found the presence of a specific protein that’s a marker of inflammation, considered an early warning sign for heart disease in adults.
According to the senior author of the study, Eliana Perrin, M.D., M.P.H., UNC Department of Pediatrics, more work needs to be done. Perrin stated, however, that the study shows that very young children who are obese already have more inflammation than those who are not overweight. Experts have been quick to point out that this doesn’t mean youngsters will be having heart attacks. Rather, they say that the research suggests we can reduce the long-term bad affects of inflammation on the heart if we begin to introduce measures to reduce the occurrence of such childhood health problems as obesity.
Reduce childhood health problems such as obesity? Enter first lady Michelle Obama and the Let’s Move campaign. The initiative seeks to educate schools, families, and communities to help kids be more active, eat better, and get healthy. Among its highlights: Pro athletes from football, baseball, soccer and women’s basketball will promote “60 Minutes of Play a Day” through sports clinics and public service announcements.
As a sign of the administration’s deep commitment, President Obama has established a Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Comprised of Cabinet members and other senior-level officials, who will function as advisers, it will make recommendations and plans to solve the problem, even working with the FDA to make food labels easier to read.
The first lady’s campaign has a long line of predecessors, going as far back as President Harry Truman. After World War II, he started the National School Lunch Program because malnourishment was the main reason people had been disqualified for military service. (In a bizarre twist, today it’s obesity.) Eisenhower and Kennedy established councils on physical fitness, and Lyndon B. Johnson expanded the lunch program to include breakfasts and meals at preschools.
If you want to help your youngster get a move on with the first lady’s national campaign, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests trying one of the following every day: 1) have five fruits and veggies; 2) cut down small-screen time to two hours, and that means video games, computer, and TV time; 3) participate in one hour of physical activity; and 4) curb sugary drinks.