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US: Childhood obesity a national crisis
Updated: 2004-09-30 15:54

America's children are fat and getting fatter, and parents, schools, the government, advertisers and the food industry all need to make changes to battle the problem, a panel of experts said on Thursday.

The report on childhood obesity from the Institute of Medicine does not call for sweeping legislation but does propose some controversial moves such as clearer labeling requirements for junk foods and getting schools involved in monitoring students' weight and health.

The institute, an independent group that advises the federal government on health matters such as vitamin requirements and medical insurance, appointed a committee of pediatricians, educators, industry experts and lawyers to look at childhood obesity.

"At present, approximately nine million children over 6 years of age are considered obese," the report reads.

They have a huge risk of diabetes and heart disease, with a study published just this week showing obese children as young as age 7 have signs of damage to their arteries.

"We must act now and we must do this as a nation," said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan of Emory University in Atlanta, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who headed the panel.

The report says nutritional standards should be set for all foods and beverages served on school grounds, including those from vending machines.

The committee of 19 experts also recommended that schools bring back physical education and add other programs to get kids to exercise at least half an hour a day.

Schools should check students' weight every year, the report said.

Voluntary Restrictions

The food, beverage, and entertainment industries should voluntarily create guidelines on selling food and drink to children, modeled perhaps on voluntary guidelines for promoting alcohol, the panel said.

Restaurants should do more to provide healthy alternatives and should list calorie content and nutrition information.

They should also come up with creative ways to change "entrenched" preferences for high-calorie food that is not very nutritious, it said.

"The Food and Drug Administration should revise the Nutrition Facts panel to prominently display the total calorie content for items typically consumed at one eating occasion in addition to the standardized calorie serving and the percent Daily Value," the report reads.

In return, perhaps food labels could make more claims about healthful foods if the evidence for them exists.

Parents should encourage healthier eating and should help their children get more exercise, in part by limiting time in front of the television or computer to two hours or less a day, the panel said.

Surveys by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation have found that nearly one out of every four children age 8 and older spend more than five hours a day watching TV, and that children 6 and under spend an average of two hours a day watching television or playing computer and video games.

The Foundation estimated that the typical child sees about 40,000 commercial a year on TV, most for candy, cereal, soda and fast food. The food and beverage industries spend US$10 billion or more a year marketing directly to children and youth, the committee found.

"By the time they are 14 years old, 52 percent of boys and 32 percent of girls are drinking three or more eight-ounce servings of soda a day," the institute noted.

Community groups need to work to change zoning so that walking and bicycling are safer, the report added, and the federal government should convene a conference to look for other ways to tackle the problem.

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