Seminar’s goal: a leaner U.S.

There’s good and bad news when it comes to American obesity, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday at an event addressing the nation’s increasingly costly and deadly weight problem.

The inaugural conference on obesity control and prevention -- attended by health educators, policy analysts, epidemiologists and dietitians, among others, and sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- comes at a time when the average American carries an extra 23 pounds and the nation, collectively, is about 4.6 billion pounds overweight.

Sebelius, who oversees one of the largest federal departments, with about 67,000 employees, acknowledged many of the startling trends:

* Two out of three adults and one out of five children in the U.S. are obese or overweight.


* Childhood obesity can lead to depression, anxiety, asthma and joint problems and is the single biggest predictor of diabetes.

* Healthcare providers, increasingly diagnosing the condition in children, have stopped calling Type 2 diabetes “adult onset.”

* Scientists estimate that due to complications related to childhood obesity, today’s youngsters could be the first generation to live fewer years than their parents.

* The direct medical costs of obesity total about $147 billion annually, exceeding spending to fight cancer by more than $50 billion, according to a study funded by the CDC Foundation and released Monday.


But there’s a lot we can do to fight these trends, Sebelius said. She cited another CDC report, also released Monday, on 24 “obesity strategies” and ways to gauge their effectiveness.

These strategies include increasing the availability of healthy foods and beverages, such as by bringing more grocery stores to underserved areas; promoting physical activity and limiting sedentary behavior by expanding schools’ physical education choices; and encouraging breast feeding.

Sebelius said Tuesday that some of the $1 billion in stimulus funds appropriated for disease prevention would go toward these obesity strategies.

She also lauded local efforts, including a Southern California school district where locally grown produce has encouraged kids to start eating from the salad bar and a Northern California district that provides buses for girls to attend dance classes.

Panels throughout the three-day conference (which included scheduled “physical activity breaks”) have addressed school nutrition policies and achieving health equity among racial groups.

Sebelius criticized some schools’ decisions to scale back on recess even after eliminating physical education -- a move that research suggests could impair not only physical health but intellectual performance.

“We’ve not only been fattening our children, but we’ve been dumbing them down by not giving them a physical regime,” Sebelius said, noting that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has recognized this too.