Progress fighting obesity doesn't mean war is over

First, the good news on childhood obesity in Philadelphia: Rates among schoolchildren have fallen significantly over the past four years.

Between 2006 and 2010, the rate dropped nearly 5 percent, while national obesity rates remained unchanged, according to a new study coauthored by city Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz.

Researchers are reluctant to give too much credit for the decline to recent efforts by the city to combat obesity. But the findings are encouraging in the battle against the bulge.

The obesity problem nationwide has impacted a staggering number of adults and children at an increasingly younger age. Many believe it is a public-health crisis.


Can the city take any credit for the recent drop in obesity rates among Philadelphia school children?

The latest study’s findings were particularly significant because the greatest declines were seen among two at-risk groups — African American boys and Hispanics. These declines have not been seen elsewhere in the country.

Experts say minorities are more likely to suffer from obesity and other ailments, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, because they disproportionately live in poor households, eat diets that are high in fat and calories, and have less-educated parents.

Schwarz tempered the new findings with the sobering reality that one in five Philadelphia school children is still obese, and one in 12 is “severely” obese. That should serve as a challenge to local health and other public officials to do more to break the cycle.

Other cities, though, would do well to follow some of the steps already being taken in Philadelphia to help children and their parents combat obesity by adopting healthier lifestyles.

In 2004, the city’s public-school system was among the first to remove sodas and other sugary drinks from vending machines. It later developed snack-food standards, began offering free breakfasts, and banned the use of fryers in cafeteria kitchens. The city has also prohibited eateries from using trans fats and requires nutrition labeling on many restaurant menus to help consumers make better food choices.

The study didn’t attempt to assess whether these efforts contributed to the childhood-obesity decline. But it would be hard to argue that they didn’t help.

In addition to those programs, more education and public awareness about obesity are needed — such as the “Let’s Get Moving” campaign by first lady Michelle Obama to promote exercise and good nutrition. Schools also must continue to put healthier meals on their menus, with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Most children consume half of their calories at school.

More supermarkets in poor neighborhoods are also needed, so parents can prepare more nutritious meals at home.