Former President Bill Clinton and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are from different political parties, but they've teamed up on a new campaign: battling childhood obesity.
The American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation have partnered to create the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, and together with Gov. Huckabee, the alliance is dedicated to stopping the rise in childhood obesity by 2010 and teaching all children about the importance of good nutrition and physical activity. Black parents and all parents need to join this fight to protect our children's health.
What's the issue? Experts estimate 16 percent of American children are currently overweight — more than 11 million. They're especially alarmed because just like for American adults, these numbers are rising rapidly: The rate has doubled for children over the past 25 years, and tripled for teenagers. Some adults may see a heavy child as a sign of healthy eating or might think of weight as mostly connected to looks. But we need to be reminded that there are serious risks for some overweight children that go far beyond teasing on the playground.
Diseases once associated only with adults, such as Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, are on the rise at younger and younger ages. Overweight children are also estimated to have a 70 percent chance of being overweight adults. So for many children, this may be more than just a "chubby" phase they'll someday outgrow. Instead, they may be getting set up for a lifetime of the increased health risks that come with being overweight. The most pressing one, cardiovascular disease, remains the leading killer in America, and if the trends in childhood obesity continue, experts predict they could cut two to five years off the average American lifespan.
There are many reasons childhood obesity is on the rise. For one, American children are immersed in the same "supersize me" culture that snares adults, surrounded by high-calorie, high-fat food that's plentiful, cheap and often served in unrealistically big portions. Today's children and teenagers are also less likely than past generations to spend free time running around outdoors and more likely to spend it on the couch watching television or playing video games.
Even schools have been blamed as part of the problem. Many districts have cut back on gym time and even recess. The quality of school meals and easy availability of snacks and soft drinks in many school vending machines have been some of the first targets in the new war on child obesity, and one of the places where there's already been progress.
A number of school districts and state legislatures are pushing to improve the health content of school breakfasts and lunches and ban or limit the unhealthy products children are able to buy instead of meals, cutting down on the number of children who right now grab a candy bar and soda from the machine in the hallway and call that "lunch." In response to growing pressure on the issue, the three largest soft drink companies recently agreed to new voluntary limits on the types of drinks they'll distribute in schools. They'll now focus on providing milk, 100 percent juice and bottled water to elementary and middle school students, with a few other low-calorie choices like diet sodas or sports drinks added for older students.
Even with these kinds of changes in children's environments, the biggest influence in their habits will come from the same place it always has: Home. Parents have always been the ones to tell their children to eat more green vegetables or get some fresh air.
We know our beautiful children come in all shapes and sizes, but by being aware of the serious health risks some overweight children do face and the long-term value of a balanced diet and regular exercise for all children, we can help make sure all our children grow up to be the healthiest they can be. Making healthy food and exercise part of family life is the right place to start — and will be good for many adults too.
Teaching good habits to children early can have lifelong consequences, and someday our children — and grandchildren — will thank us.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.