Bill of health
Robin Schepper, who headed Michelle Obama’s drive to combat childhood obesity in the US, is on a mission, writes Simon Carswell, Washington Correspondent
As children prepare to return to school, spare a thought for how much healthier we were, how more active children were in our day and how childhood obesity was not the risk that it is now.
Today’s trend is alarming: one-quarter of Irish three-year-olds and one-third of seven-year-olds is overweight or obese. Ireland’s children now rank fifth among 27 EU countries for childhood obesity, and nearly half of adults will be obese by 2030 if the trend continues.
In the US, meanwhile, obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the past 30 years, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of children the ages of six and 11 who were obese has increased from 7 per cent in 1980 to almost 18 per cent in 2000. Over the same period the percentage of adolescents (aged 12 to 19) who were obese increased from 5 per cent to 18 per cent. Current Irish statistics are just as worrying.
Earlier this summer an Oireachtas committee was told that 19 per cent of boys and 18 per cent of girls from professional households are overweight or obese, but this increases to 29 per cent of boys and 38 per cent of girls from semiskilled and unskilled backgrounds.
With more than one-third of US children and adolescents and two-thirds of the adult population overweight or obese, Michelle Obama launched the high-profile Let’s Move campaign three years ago, an initiative set up by the White House to combat childhood obesity. Robin Schepper, the first executive director of this programme, puts the increase in childhood obesity in the US down to a range of factors.
Portion sizes are one-third bigger than they were 30 years ago and people eat 15 pounds more sugar every year than they used to, says Schepper. People also snack far more than they once did.
On the level of physical activity, in the 1970s, 70 per cent of children walked or cycled to school while 30 per cent travelled by bus or car. “It is the exact opposite now,” says Schepper, who is a guest speaker at the Irish Nutrition and Health Foundation annual seminar in Dublin next month.
An “unintended consequence” of promoting maths and reading in US schools led to one hour’s worth of physical education a day being cut, while home economics, a subject taught in the 1960s, was also removed from school syllabuses, so two generations of families “don’t know how to cook,” she says.
Two years ago Schepper accompanied Obama on a trip to a US army base in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, to see their “Fuelling Soldiers” initiative to improve nutrition. The army found that 19-year-old recruits had lower bone density than soldiers 20 years ago. The reason for this was less physical education in schools and that when they were around the age of 10 or 11 schools replaced milk with sugary drinks.
“In the army 64 per cent of recruits that go through a 10-week basic training programme cannot go to the next level of advanced training because of a dental issue,” says Schepper, with some surprise.