With one in six California kids classified as significantly overweight, Los Angeles County health officials launched a campaign this week to encourage families to drink water instead of sugary beverages and curb childhood obesity.
Dr. Paul Simon, director of the Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said that though there’s no single way to reduce obesity rates, educating parents and countering junk food marketing that targets kids are vital.
“We need to change the food environment if we’re going to be successful in reversing the obesity epidemic,” he said.
A recent report found that though California’s adult obesity rate is fifth-lowest in the nation, it has the country’s highest obesity rate among low-income children ages 2 to 4, with nearly 17% who are obese. Approximately 15% of all California kids are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Simon said that sodas should be viewed as a special treat, but young kids often drink them every day. That sends a dangerously large amount of sugar into the body, he said.
“It’s like a tsunami,” he said.
The body struggles to metabolize that sugar, he said, and the liver in particular has trouble handling the overload, leading to unhealthy fat accumulation in the liver.
“It really puts a strain on your body,” Simon said.
The health department’s campaign launched this week, “Water: The Healthiest Choice, will place messages at bus shelters as well as online and on the radio. In one poster, a young boy sips on a red straw, his face partly covered by the words “WARNING: Soda, sports & juice drinks can lead to childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.”
The campaign also has signs in Spanish to target the county’s large Latino population, which tends to have higher rates of obesity.
Nationally, more than a third of adults nationwide are obese, and more than two-thirds are either overweight or obese.
Childhood obesity is defined as weighing more than the vast majority of kids of the same height and age. For example, a 10-year-old boy of average height — about 4.5 feet tall — who weighs 102 pounds would have a body-mass index (a measure of weight and height) higher than 95% of his peers, and therefore be considered obese.
Obesity is a major public health concern, but it’s a complicated problem to address because it usually requires lifestyle changes mostly involving diet and exercise.
Simon said that in addition to the new campaign, the department is working to improve the nutritional quality of food offered on campuses and getting more play time in the school day. Health officials are also partnering with AltaMed, a nonprofit clinic network in the county, and Superior Grocers in East L.A. to place healthful snack guides in supermarkets and train store workers to make healthful shopping suggestions to customers.
Battling obesity requires that sort of multi-pronged approach, Simon said. He cited the anti-smoking campaign of the 1960s and ‘70s, which altered tobacco culture in the United States.
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