Childhood obesity called ‘A clear and present danger’

WATERBURY — In his campaign against childhood obesity, Dr. David Katz acknowledges that his simple, common-sense prescription is not always easy to follow.

“We need to eat less and better stuff and get off our rear ends and be active,” Katz, a nationally-known expert on nutrition and weight management, told a meeting of educators and health officials Wednesday.

But today’s children often get less time to play and more exposure to unhealthy, high-calorie “glow-in-the-dark foods,” said Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center.

Armed with sobering statistics and studies, Katz issued warnings about obesity and excessive weight, calling it “arguably the gravest public health threat we face in this country.”

The symposium focused on a problem that has been highlighted in numerous studies, including a new statewide high school health survey.

According to that survey, 10 percent of public school students were obese and another 15 percent were overweight. Obesity rates were considerably higher among black and Hispanic students. Among the students surveyed, 87 percent reported eating vegetables less than three times a day, and 64 percent ate fruit or drank fruit juice less than twice a day.

The survey also reported that 30 percent of students watched television three or more hours on an average school day, and 28 percent played video games or used computers for non-school activities on an average day.

According to a national study reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of obese 2-to-5-year-olds in 2007-08 had doubled since 1976-80, reaching more than 10 percent. Among 6- to 11-year-olds, the rate tripled, reaching almost 20 percent. Similarly, the percentage of obese 12- to 19-year-olds more than tripled during that span, growing to 18 percent.

“We do, indeed, have an epidemic,” said Katz. The link between obesity and diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer is well known and usually is associated with adults but now has, in rare cases, begun to show up in children, too, he said.

“There is no silver bullet,” he said. “The root cause is modern living.”

Katz cited the widespread availability of unhealthy foods, deceptive advertising about the nutritional value of food, and declining levels of physical activity.

In schools, educators have reduced time for recess as they focus on demands such as meeting the goals of No Child Left Behind, the federal program to test math and reading skills, he said.

According to a national study released this month by Bridging the Gap and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, only 19 percent of the nation’s third-graders are offered daily physical education, and 24 percent have physical education just once a week.

In Connecticut, just 36 percent of public school students in 2008-09 were able to pass all four fitness categories in an annual state test of aerobics, flexibility, endurance and upper body strength.

Jean Mee, a physical education and health consultant with the State Department of Education, said that a renewed emphasis on the obesity problem has prompted educators to take a closer look at the connection between fitness levels and factors such as school attendance, behavior and academic performance.

“I’m very hopeful we’re going to see an increase in physical activity. . . . When we feel better, we do better,” said Mee, one of several officials conducting work sessions at Wednesday’s symposium.

Despite some of the obstacles, schools and community organizations can develop strategies to promote physical activity and healthy eating, Katz said. He has developed approaches such as Nutrition Detective, a program teaching children to read food labels and make better choices and ABC for Fitness,  a program helping teachers incorporate more physical activity into the school day.

He is also the principal creator of a nutritional rating index known as NuVal that is used in some supermarkets to help consumers avoid less healthy foods.

“There is a clear and present danger,” he said. “We must do whatever it takes.”