WASHINGTON, July 25 (UPI) -- Solving America's epidemic of childhood obesity epidemic will require ensuring the nation's schools have adequate funding to support physical education and healthy nutrition programs, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said Thursday.
Speaking at a news conference to announce an upcoming summit on making schools healthier for students, Satcher, who will serve as chair of the summit, said, "Obesity is on the way to becoming the leading preventable cause of death."
More than 300,000 deaths in the United States each year are associated with obesity, Satcher said. More than 30 medical and educational organizations and governmental agencies will participate in the summit, which will take place Oct. 7-8 in Washington.
Satcher noted the fight against obesity is "not about appearances ... or aesthetics. It's about health." Obesity is a leading risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, cancer and type 2 or adult onset diabetes, which is occurring in children as young as 10 years old, he said.
Satcher pointed out children who engage in physical activity programs at school and healthy nutrition perform better academically, so schools that cut these programs are "penny-wise and pound foolish." Not encouraging healthy lifestyles in kids leads to long-term health problems due to obesity that cost the healthcare system $120 billion each year, he said.
"We're going to pay sooner or later," said Satcher, adding it costs more to pay later so it makes more sense to fund schools adequately now, He noted cutting physical activity and nutrition programs should not be blamed on the schools. They are forced to make these cuts, he said, because American society is not providing the funding they need.
William Potts-Datema of the Harvard School of Public Health agreed schools could make a big difference in reducing childhood obesity. In addition to encouraging healthy lifestyles among youth, another reason to support physical activity and nutrition programs is there is a "clear and compelling" link between such programs and improved performance in school, he said.
Children participating in breakfast programs at schools have higher standardized test scores and higher grades, Potts-Datema said, adding school food programs also are associated with higher intakes of vitamins and minerals, fruits and vegetables and other healthy food choices. Students involved in physical education classes achieve better math and reading scores and better behavior and mental health, he said.
Kids want healthier food and physical activity programs at schools, said Jinny Jang, health and social issues coordinator of the Maryland Association of Student Councils. Jang said she surveyed students across the country last month and found the overwhelming majority want healthier food options at school and more time for physical activity.
Karen Pertschuk, a public health nutritionist, told United Press International change in schools depends on concerned teachers and parents at the local level. Although schools need support from state and federal governments, ultimately it is up to parents and teachers to ensure schools offer healthier food choices.
Pertschuk said children will choose healthier food if it is offered to them and programs teaching them about and exposing them to nutritional foods in elementary school can have a lifelong impact.
She noted, however, the rates of childhood obesity are frightening and "we need to do something soon." For example, programs about obesity from federal governmental agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can promote better awareness about the condition in childhood. These campaigns have been effective for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, so a well-funded campaign targeted at obesity could help stem the increasing number of overweight kids, she said.
Satcher said educating the general population about the problems associated with childhood obesity should be a key goal of the October summit, over which first lady Laura Bush will preside as honorary chairwoman.