Childhood Obesity – A Community Problem

By Kim Smiley

It takes a village to raise a child . . .and to keep one from becoming obese. Childhood obesity is now being recognized as, at least partially, a community problem with community-based solutions. At the peak of the “obesity epidemic”, 32% of children in the U.S. were classified as overweight and 16% were classified as obese.

Obesity can result in a greater risk of disease (more than 90% of overweight children have at least one avoidable factor for heart disease.) This is an impact to the health goal of a community, and the nation. Obesity is the result of sustained weight gain. Weight gain is a simple balance problem. If calories consumed are greater than calories expended, as a result of too many calories consumed, too few expended, or both, weight gain will result. Usually obesity is caused by both.

First we’ll look at the causes of consuming too many calories. Too many calories are consumed when children eat high-calorie, low-satisfaction foods. In many cases, this is because a child has access to these types of foods and because healthy choices are not available. This is true with family, and at school, which generally contribute equally to caloric intake. A high proportion of foods consumed at school may be unhealthy; schools must offer healthier choices. Some schools have done away with soda and candy, but more healthy choices must also be offered. Students bringing their own lunches may suffer doubly from healthy food not being available at home, due to a lack of access or affordability. The all-too-many areas in the country that do not have access to healthy food at supermarkets or farmer’s markets are known as “nutritional deserts”, most frequently found in low-income and/or rural areas. Communities must improve access to healthy food, at school and at home.

The other part of the equation is calories consumed, otherwise known as exercise. However, children don’t need time on the treadmill; they need safe places to play outdoors or a safe route to walk or bike to school in order to get exercise. They also need physical education (PE) at school, and they need to see the importance of physical activity (something their parents may not be modeling at home, based on adult obesity rates, which are extremely high as well). Low-income and/or rural areas are less likely to have safe places to play outdoors, or a safe way for children to bike/walk to school, so these children are disproportionately affected by obesity. Communities must provide an outlet for physical activity for children.

On the downloadable PDF (download by clicking “Download PDF” above), we show the causes and solutions in a Cause Map, a simple intuitive format that fits on one page. The causes are solutions shown here are from the perspective of the community – causes and solutions that can be controlled by a community. If communities began implementing these solutions, the childhood obesity epidemic would be a thing of the past.

Want to learn more? See the Institute of Medicine report, issued in 2007.