Childhood obesity can be defeated

For the first time in our nation’s history, our children and grandchildren are on track to live shorter lives than their parents. They will be sicker and less healthy than the generation that preceded them — our generation. 

Today, more than a third of American children are overweight or obese. That’s one in every three kids who are strong candidates for chronic health problems like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

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The economic costs alone are formidable — just for Medicaid, childhood obesity is estimated to cost $3 billion annually. Childhood obesity also presents a unique national security risk. Today, more than a quarter of Americans ages 17 to 24 are unqualified for military service because they are too heavy to serve. 

We must reverse this trend. And we must do it now.

As children grow up, everyone around them has a role to play in their health — from parents and caregivers to schools to public-sector organizations to private-sector companies. 

There is a particularly critical role for the private sector. Whether it’s the vendor supplying the community day care center with snacks, the national grocer deciding where to build the next store, the supply chain manager getting fruits and vegetables to market or the employer implementing a company-wide wellness program — ending childhood obesity is not possible without the help of the private sector.

Family life is hectic, especially in the increasing number of homes with two working parents. Getting children home from school, off to activities and friends, then finishing homework and into bed at a reasonable hour leaves many feeling like there’s little time for preparing healthy snacks and sitting down for a family dinner made with fresh, nutritious ingredients. This  is precisely why it is so important for the private sector to make the healthy choice the easy choice for busy parents and families. 

There are steps that can be taken to ensure that everyday life — from dropping the kids off at day care to picking up the groceries to celebrating with a meal at a restaurant — is made healthier without costing Americans more time or money. These steps need not be philanthropic acts of private enterprise. The American ideal has always been to do well while doing good. Private industry can make the healthy choice the easy choice and make money doing it. 

For example, earlier this year food providers like Walgreens, SUPERVALU and Wal-Mart joined regional chains, including Calhouns Enterprises in Alabama, to expand access to healthy affordable foods to 10 million Americans that currently have none. They did so as industry leaders, but also with an understanding that marketing healthier foods to new audiences can have a positive effect on the bottom line. 

And earlier this month, Darden Restaurants — the nation’s largest full-service restaurant company, which owns restaurant chains including Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Longhorn Steakhouse — pledged to improve the nutrition of both its kids’ and full menus. It was a change they made not by government fiat but at the request of their customers, who were seeking healthier options.

Not to mention that healthier children today mean a healthier and more productive workforce tomorrow, with lower healthcare costs and fewer sick days.

Undoubtedly, these are major steps forward. But there is much more to do. Parents don’t need more complexity and increased costs — they need answers and easier ways to provide a healthy lifestyle for their kids. That is why the Partnership for a Healthier America is continuing to work with the private sector to make healthy choices as easy and as economical as possible.

We owe it to the youngest and often most vulnerable among us to ensure they have healthy childhoods and healthy, full lives. Now is the time to do better for our children and our country.

Frist, a doctor, is honorary vice chairman of the Partnership for a Healthier America, an organization working with the private sector to solve the nation’s childhood obesity crisis.