Researchers Seek Solutions to Childhood Obesity Crisis
Two years ago, an Atlanta hospital released an aggressive ad campaign designed to get people talking about a shocking public health problem. Billboards featured stark black-and-white photos of overweight children and taglines, including “Chubby kids may not outlive their parents.”
The campaign angered many people who thought it stigmatized overweight children. But Walt Thompson, professor of kinesiology and health in the College of Education, says the confrontational approach was needed.
“The kids are obese. We need to own up to that and do something about it,” Thompson says. “It’s not politically correct, but it is what it is, and it’s about time that we get into the faces of parents and the kids themselves because for the first time, as long as these statistics have been kept, our kids are not going to live as long as we are.”
The ad campaign, called “Stop Sugarcoating It, Georgia,” was run by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which says nearly 40 percent of Georgia children are overweight or obese. Only Mississippi has worse numbers. Perhaps more alarming, Children’s Healthcare found 75 percent of Peach State parents didn’t recognize the problem.
Obesity in children can lead to serious health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other diseases normally associated with adults.
Researchers at Georgia State have been focused on raising awareness of childhood obesity and trying to identify the root causes for decades, including experts in nutrition, exercise science, public policy and economics. Some see progress, but others say Georgia has a long way to go to help its youngest citizens grow into healthy, productive adults.
Rodney Lyn, director of the university’s Policy Leadership for Active Youth (PLAY) research initiative that promotes emerging strategies for obesity prevention and reduction, says the problem is more complicated than urging kids to eat less and exercise more.
“One of the biggest challenges with obesity is it’s so pervasive, not in terms of its prevalence — that’s true — but in terms of the causes,” says Lyn, who is also an assistant professor in the School of Public Health.
“I think the science has a long way to go in isolating the specific causes of obesity. There are so many places and so many potential sources of the problem. There’s not an area of our lives that is not related to obesity.”
Several economics professors at Georgia State have studied how food prices and other factors can play a role:
- Rachana Bhatt, assistant professor of economics, has found the more time kids have for lunch, the less likely they are to be obese. Now, she’s taking a look at the effect of soda and junk food bans in schools.
- Professor of Economics Erdal Tekin has looked at food prices and body fat in youth. He found higher prices on fruits and vegetables and lower fast-food prices are associated with higher rates of childhood obesity.
- Rusty Tchernis, an associate professor of economics, has looked at the effects of walking trails (they lead to better outcomes unless the trails are crime havens), maternal employment (the more mothers work, the more likely their children will become obese) and federally funded school breakfast and lunch programs (breakfast is not contributing to the problem, but lunch might be).
With a problem that’s so complex, Lyn says solutions need to involve changing systems, policies and environments.
In one promising step, the Georgia legislature adopted the 2009 Georgia SHAPE (Student Health and Physical Education) Act, which went into effect in the 2011-12 school year. The law requires all Georgia students enrolled in physical education classes to undergo annual fitness assessments. This provides the state with valuable data on nearly a million students, equal to about two-thirds of Georgia’s student population. (Students in grades 6-12 are not required to take physical education.)
The first SHAPE report found 43 percent of Georgia students did not reach the Healthy Fitness Zone standard for body mass index, an indicator their percentage of body fat is too high.
Senior Research Associate Debra Kibbe and Associate Project Director Mary Ann Phillips of the Georgia Health Policy Center housed in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies say Georgia has made progress that sets the state apart.
Georgia is one of a few states in the country that require fitness testing of kids statewide and certification for school nutrition professionals. The state’s Department of Early Care and Learning includes nutrition and physical activity in its rating of childcare providers.
They also note that several high-ranking officials, including Governor Nathan Deal, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and Commissioner of Public Health Brenda Fitzgerald, have taken a keen interest in seeking solutions.
Kibbe says public-private partnerships to combat obesity in Georgia are on the rise, leading to a more cohesive approach to the problem.
“Rather than think about programs, we’re shifting to policy, we’re shifting to community-based efforts,” Kibbe says. “The collective investment by public and private foundations is being used more strategically.”
Still, some experts argue the state lags in taking concrete steps to reduce the number of overweight kids. Mississippi, for example, passed a law in 2007 requiring public schools to allot more time for physical education for children in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Many experts say it’s clear Georgia has a lot of work to do.
Tchernis, the economist, says even a room full of experts with unlimited funds would struggle to find a solution.
“There’s really no consensus on what should be done,” Tchernis says.
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