First Lady Launches Campaign to Fight Childhood Obesity

Family Physicians Have Major Role to Play, Says Surgeon General

February 11, 2010 05:00 pm James Arvantes Washington –

During a Feb. 9 White House event(, first lady Michelle Obama unveiled her Let's Move( campaign to combat childhood obesity. The campaign is designed to support parents, provide healthier foods in schools, help kids be more physically active, and make healthy food affordable and available to "get us to our goal of solving childhood obesity in a generation," said Obama.

First lady Michelle Obama explains her public outreach campaign to fight childhood obesity, known as Let's Move, during a White House event on Feb. 9.

She outlined some sobering statistics about childhood obesity during the event. "Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in this country have tripled," Obama said, adding that currently, nearly one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese. "But the truth is that these numbers don't paint the full picture ... the words 'overweight' and 'obese' -- those words don't tell the full story because this isn't about inches and pounds and it's not about how our kids look ... it's about how our kids feel and it's about how they feel about themselves. It's about the impact that this issue is having on every aspect of their life."

Obama noted that physicians are seeing more obesity-related health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes in young people than ever before. In addition, obesity now is one of the most common disqualifiers for military service.

Involving Physicians

"We recognize the health threat that childhood and adult obesity presents for this nation," said AAFP President Lori Heim, M.D., of Vass, N.C., in a Feb. 4 letter(2 page PDF) pledging the AAFP's support for the Let's Move initiative. Heim, who attended the first lady's event, noted that the AAFP has a number of programs and activities to help family physicians work with families to prevent and treat obesity and overweight.

In an interview with AAFP News Now after the White House event, Heim said that the AAFP, which is a partner in the Let's Move campaign, will be undertaking a number of new activities as part of that effort, including providing family physicians with Web-based tools and services to help them aid patients and families struggling with childhood obesity. "We will do a concerted educational effort with our members in terms of the issues surrounding childhood obesity -- the recognition of it, counseling of the parents, healthy food choices and the impact of exercise," said Heim.

In a separate interview with AAFP News Now after the event, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, M.D., M.B.A., said "family physicians play a major role in the health of children."

"Half of our patients are children, so it is really important that we make sure that family physicians are right there at the table -- not just with the children" -- but with the entire family, said Benjamin, who is a family physician herself and who recently unveiled "The Surgeon General's Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation 2010."

"We face a medical and moral imperative to rescue our children's health," said Judith Palfrey, M.D., president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, during opening remarks at the event. "Overweight and obesity have serious medical consequences, including heart disease, diabetes and bone problems. Everyday, we see overweight toddlers who struggle to learn to walk or run."

"We know that solving our obesity challenge won't be easy -- and it certainly won't be quick," said the first lady, "but make no mistake about it, this problem can be solved."

A Four-Pronged Approach

The Let's Move campaign will be supported, in part, by a newly formed federal task force on childhood obesity. The Task Force on Childhood Obesity, which is composed of representatives from key agencies, will review every program and policy relating to child nutrition and physical activity during the next 90 days and use that information to develop an action plan, according to Obama.

Household Routines Affect Childhood Obesity

Turning off the television, eating meals as a family and getting a good night's sleep could significantly lower a child's odds of becoming obese, according to a recent study.

Previous research has linked obesity to the individual behaviors of excessive TV viewing, inadequate sleep and a low frequency of family meals. Now, a study published in Pediatrics( reports that among 4-year-olds who ate dinner with their families more than five times per week, slept at least 10 and one-half hours per night, and watched fewer than two hours of TV per weekday, the prevalence of obesity was almost 40 percent lower than it was among children who practiced none of these routines.

Lead author Sarah Anderson, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the Ohio State University College of Public Health, Columbus, said in a news release( that the routines are protective even among high-risk groups.

"This is important because it suggests that there's a potential for these routines to be useful targets for obesity prevention in all children," she said.

Overall, 18 percent of children in the study were obese. Among children whose families practiced all three routines, the prevalence of obesity was 14.3 percent. In homes that followed none of the routines, nearly one-fourth of children were obese.

"I imagine people are going to want to know which of the routines is most important," Anderson said in the release. "Is it limited TV; is it dinner; is it adequate sleep? And what this suggests is that you can't point to any one of these routines. Each one appears to be associated with a lower risk of obesity, and having more of these routines appears to lower the risk further."

The Let's Move campaign itself will provide a four-pronged approach to solving the problem of childhood obesity:

  • healthy choices,
  • healthier schools,
  • physical activity, and
  • accessible and affordable healthy food.

According to Obama, the Let's Move campaign already has begun working with the FDA and several large food manufacturers to make food labels more consumer-friendly and understandable so parents can more easily provide healthy choices for their children.

In addition, "The nation's largest beverage companies announced that they'll be taking steps to provide clearly visible information about calories on the front of products, as well as on vending machines and soda fountains," said Obama. "That is exactly the kind of vital information parents need to make good choices for their kids."

It also is important to remember that 31 million American children participate in federal school meal programs, because many of these children consume as many as half of their daily calories at school, Obama said.

The administration plans to update and strengthen the Child Nutrition Act, a law that sets nutrition standards for what children eat at school. In addition, the administration plans to double the number of schools participating in the Healthier School Challenge, a program designed to recognize schools that strive to keep children healthy, said Obama.

"What we don't want is a situation where parents are taking all the right steps at home, and then their kids undo all that work with salty, fatty food in the school cafeteria," said Obama. She announced that several major school food suppliers have committed to decreasing sugar, fat and salt in their food; increasing whole grains; and doubling the amount of fresh produce they serve in school meals.

The Let's Move campaign also contains initiatives to increase the physical activity of children, including greater participation in the President's Physical Fitness Challenge.

"We'll modernize the challenge so it's not just about how athletic kids are -- how many sit-ups or push-ups they can do -- but how active they are," said Obama.

The first lady also unveiled a U.S. Department of Agriculture atlas showing so-called food deserts in the United States. Food deserts -- communities that lack supermarkets -- are considered a major culprit in driving up obesity rates, according to Obama. She noted that the Let's Move campaign is committed to eliminating food deserts in the United States within seven years, a goal that will require a serious commitment from the federal government and the private sector, said Obama.

"That's why we plan to invest $400 million a year in a healthy food initiative that will bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help places like convenience stores carry healthier food options," said Obama.