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Youth-Obesity Stories Paint Ugly Picture for U.S.

Two studies and a commentary released in the past few weeks have focused specifically on the youth-obesity epidemic that's exploded across the U.S. in the past 20 years. All in all, there's not a lot of good news for the States.

Let's dive right into them:

The Rise of U.S. Youth Obesity

Obesity began spiking in U.S. teens and young adults in the 1990s and 2000s, according to a new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health that examines more than 40 years of BMI data.

Young people maintained a relatively steady weight throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, but the researchers noticed a large increase in the weights of early-adolescents around 1990. For reasons unclear to the researchers, females and African-Americans were more prone to weight increases—particularly black women from 1999-2002. (The study's most recent data came from 2002.)

"For young people in particular, it has to do with more of a sedentary lifestyle and an increasing portion of weekly meals that are fast food," said study co-author Kathleen Mullan Harris in an interview with the Health Behavior News Service."There's more TV watching and sitting in front of the computer, as well as more video game-playing."

The study's authors believe that their research speaks to the need to develop preventative obesity measures in childhood, in hopes of discouraging obesity-promoting activities before they become inherent in a child's lifestyle.

Warnings Pointless?

A number of schools around the country have begun gathering body mass index data of their students. As one recent study suggests, those data don't have nearly as much impact on parents of overweight children as one might suspect.

California has required almost all public schools to gather students' BMI data since 2001, giving Dr. Kristine Madsen of the Department of Pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco, a data pool of nearly 7 million BMI tests. Only some schools sent that data home to students' parents.

Madsen discovered that notifying the parents of overweight children about their child's weight issues had no impact on his or her future weight loss. Overweight children whose parents weren't notified were equally likely to have lost weight.

That led Madsen to conclude that schools should focus on health-based interventions they control, such as increasing the healthiness of school lunches and emphasizing the importance of physical activity.

"Physical education is probably the most underused public-health tool we have," she said in an interview with Reuters. "We really would urge schools to make sure their environments are supporting physical activity to the extent possible."

Madsen noted that her study doesn't conclusively prove the ineffectiveness of notifications in general; instead, the California notifications themselves could be the problem. The schools mostly notify parents with a letter—which, Madsen says, could easily go ignored—and the letters refer to students' BMIs, rarely using the words "overweight" or "obese."

Obesity as Child Abuse?

Should parents of morbidly obese children lose their custody rights? A Harvard researcher and a Children's Hospital Boston doctor argue that they should, in a recent commentary for The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Professor Lindsey Murtagh and Dr. David S. Ludwig write that inadequate parental supervision—such as leaving excessive amounts of junk food around the house or allowing a child to maintain a sedentary lifestyle—can contribute to obesity. They compare this type of poor parenting to the dangers of second-hand cigarette smoke—something that has negative health implications for a child, but isn't technically criminal.

It's worth stressing that the authors aren't referring to every overweight child here—only those whose obesity could pose life-threatening risks, such as type 2 diabetes. (We're talking 300-pound 10-year-olds, not a child who could stand to lose 10 pounds.)

And thus, the authors argue, "In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable from a legal standpoint because of imminent health risks and the parents' chronic failure to address medical problems."

They do say that this type of state intervention wouldn't be ideal, given the varying quality of foster care, and would need to be carefully considered when being applied.

"Ultimately," the authors conclude, "government can reduce the need for such interventions through investments in the social infrastructure and policies to improve diet and promote physical activity among children."

Lessons Learned

The one commonality in all three pieces: The government, schools, and parents alike need to be promoting a physically active lifestyle to set an example for younger generations.

For schools that collect BMI data and report the findings to parents, they must work harder on delivering their messages effectively—especially to parents of overweight children. Whether that means educating parents on healthy BMI levels or using the words "overweight" and "obese" in more forms of communication, the University of California, San Francisco, study suggests that the message isn't yet getting across clearly.

Ultimately, the commentary from the Boston duo is a call for accountability in the obesity epidemic. If parents allow their children to endanger their lives with their weight, the authors argue, those parents should be held accountable for their actions.

As it turns out, a school board member in Virginia Beach, Va., also made a recent call for accountability, saying that phys. ed. teachers should be eventually held responsible if their students don't boost their fitness levels.

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