Opinion

Doctors Should Be The First Line Of Defense Against Childhood Obesity, Not The State

Doug Werner Author, Abbie Gets Fit

According to Child Obesity 180, a Tufts University think tank, rates of obesity have doubled in children 2-5 years old, quadrupled in 6-11 year olds, and tripled in 12-19 year olds since 1980. Designed to Move, a physical activity action agenda created by Nike and The American College of Sports Medicine, estimates that today’s generation of American youth will be the first in our history that will not live longer lives than their parents.

What is driving this crisis and how do we reverse it?  Well, many pundits claim that the main culprit is simply ‘junk food.’ Their answer to the problem usually suggests government intervention to help curb the consumption of ‘sugary drinks’ and minimize access to fast food outlets for example. Yes, a healthy diet is important, but if you listen long enough to this rhetoric, you would swear that if we simply outlawed Coca-Cola and McDonalds, our problem would be solved!

Not so fast. Roll back the clock to 1980, and beyond if you like, to the days before this trend began. Not only were sugary drinks and fast food restaurants just as accessible as they are today, but there were actually far fewer ‘no sugar,’ low sugar and low fat options available. Diet Coke was not introduced until August of 1982 and McDonald’s didn’t add salads to their menu until 1985! Can anyone argue that there are now dozens, if not hundreds of options for healthier food and drink than there were even 20 years ago? Yet, childhood obesity is far more prevalent today.  

So what has changed? In one word … exercise! According to the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance, only 42 percent of 6-11 year olds and just 8 percent of 12-15 year olds in the U.S. meet the minimum criteria for daily exercise. The same study found that the least fit kids of just 20 years ago would be among the fittest today. Unfortunately, most schools are not helping much, as physical education classes and recess time continue to dwindle and in some cases are non-existent. This, more than anything else, is what has changed!  

Compounding the dire consequences of this physical inactivity epidemic is the fact that most parents of overweight or obese children do not even realize that their children are unfit. In a 2014 study from the New York University School of Medicine, an amazing 97 percent of parents of overweight boys and 93 percent of overweight girls identified their children as about the right weight. How do taxes on sugary drinks fix that?

So, if government intervention and schools are not the answer, and parents aren’t equipped to even acknowledge the problem, who should be the first line of defense? Dustin Duncan, the NYU study’s lead author says, “We need clear communication between pediatricians and parents for parents to understand their child’s weight status and implications for them to make healthful changes.” Who better to be the first line of defense against childhood obesity than a doctor?

Now, after years of mostly sitting on the sidelines on this issue, the American Academy of Pediatrics has finally taken a stand and issued a mea culpa of sorts! In a June, 2015 clinical report, the AAP stated ‘this report describes the rationale for pediatricians to be an integral part of the obesity-prevention effort.’ In addition to a focus on family-based intervention strategies, doctors are being urged to encourage families to meet the national physical activity guideline of at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily and to actually help identify those physical activity opportunities for each family.  

But, why haven’t these pediatricians been more involved in the past? Well, theories abound, from legitimate patient care time constraints to conflict avoidance, reimbursement issues and more. However, the main reason may simply be a lack of physician training on the subject matter.

A June, 2015 resolution by the American Medical Association appears to support that theory. With this resolution, the AMA has created a ‘call-to-action for obesity education in medical schools.’ Dr. Ethan Lazarus, M.D., lead author of the resolution, surveyed medical students from across the country to assess whether modern obesity training in medical schools is adequate. “By and large, I found that graduating physicians don’t feel like they have been trained with any tools to deal with the obesity epidemic,” Dr. Lazarus said. The passing of this resolution represents pointing the needle a little bit more in the right direction toward treating obesity like other diseases, which we are just not doing an adequate job of right now. There are a lot of pieces to the equation, but I think that the first thing that has to happen is physician education, and this is a big step in that direction.”

All of this is great news for kids in need. When it comes to the health and well-being of their children, no one is trusted more by parents than the pediatrician. Not the schools, not industry and certainly not the government.

Move over nanny, there’s finally a doctor in the house!

Doug Werner is a parent of two teenage children and the author of ‘Abbie Gets Fit’, the critically acclaimed children’s book chronicling a true story about one nine year old girl’s journey to get fit with Doug…her dad. He is a member of The American College of Sports Medicine, a 35-year veteran of the fitness industry and a recipient of that industry’s Distinguished Service Award.  He can be reached at doug@abbiegetsfit.com. ‘Abbie Gets Fit’ is available at www.abbiegetsfit.com or www.amazon.com.