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Published: Tuesday, 9/19/2006

The weight is over

AMERICA has a growing problem, and it's no joke. Obesity, already rampant in adults, now is impacting our children, with 20 percent of the nation's kids expected to be obese by the year 2010.

A new report has some positive news in that there is increasing recognition of the danger posed by obesity, and there are programs being developed across the country to tackle it. But recognizing the issue and coming to an agreement about which of those programs really work are two entirely different things. The Institute of Medicine, which issued the report, says that research is needed to identify which methods work.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, who headed the panel preparing the report, obesity is "a major health problem. It's of a different nature than acute infectious threats, but it needs to be taken seriously."

Obesity poses a significant threat to the health of individual Americans and to the health-care system, which must treat the ailments that result from being overweight.

The reasons for the obesity epidemic have been well documented, and include a lack of exercise, sedentary lifestyles, diets rich in fatty foods and poor in fruits and vegetables, and overconsumption of soft drinks. Determining how to address the issue should be a government priority but, according to this new report, one program that was proven to work ended because of budget cuts.

That was the VERB program, which pushed youngsters to take part in physical exercise, including skateboarding and bicycle riding.

The panel rightly observed that the funding cut calls into question the administration's commitment to tackling obesity. The cut also made no sense because it is ridiculous to put a program into effect, observe its effectiveness, and then pull the plug, thereby wasting the funds already spent.

Equally disturbing is the panel's report that other programs which show some promise in reducing obesity levels in young people are inadequate in their reach and funding. It cites the example of an Agriculture Department program that operates in only 14 states, and a Centers for Disease Control project that had enough money to fund nutrition and exercise programs for kids in only 28 states.

Nutrition and weight have become global issues. According to the United Nations, more people around the world are overweight than undernourished. The globalization of a taste for pop and fast food surely has a role to play in that. In India, for example, sweets and processed and fried foods are contributing factors to a rise in diabetes levels. The projection is that in 20 years 75 million Indians will be diabetics.

The World Health Organization says that by 2025 three-quarters of the world's 350 million diabetics will be in the Third World.

The global march of obesity and its associated health risks does not grab headlines in the same way as other threats to health. But the potential cost of inaction in tackling it could prove ruinous. The Institute of Medicine report should provide impetus for a concerted effort by the federal government to put in place a coordinated and comprehensive plan to first determine the most effective means to combat obesity in all age groups, and then fund practical, proven programs.



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