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Obesity in the U.S. -- A perfect storm

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By Sheilah Downey

As childhood obesity numbers continue to swell to button-popping proportions, scientists predicted the "perfect storm" that has brewed the overweight epidemic facing America's children today.

Obesity rates have escalated in almost half of the 50 states and the childhood obesity rates have more than tripled since 1980, says a report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released Wednesday.

A collection of studies published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in September of 2007 studied the obesity epidemic and suggested environmental factors and public policies are fueling the problem and compromising children's health.

"We have in our schools and communities a perfect storm that will continue to feed the childhood obesity epidemic until we adopt policies that improve the health of our communities and our kids," said Dr. Frank Chaloupka, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said in a statement to Reuters.

Deciphering the causes of the obesity epidemic is not rocket science -- too little exercise and too many calories. But scientists in the study cited adverse environmental factors that contributed to the problem. Fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that proliferate neighborhoods throughout the country mean kids are tempted to eat less-healthy food.

Scientists also found that kids are bombarded by TV commercials touting sweets and fast-food franchises. In a study of more than 200,000 ads of top-rated shows for teens aged 12 to 17 years, more than 23 percent of all ads were for fast-food, the study found.

Also fueling the problem is that teens have ready-access to high-fat, sugary foods and drinks at their schools, say researchers.

The third cloud in this perfect storm, said scientists, is that schools are less likely to require physical education to older teens.

While 87 percent of 13 to 14-year olds were required to take P.E. classes at schools, only 20 percent of 17 to 18-year olds were required to take the classes.

Answers to the problem, said Dr. Jeff Levi, Executive Director of the TFAH, are not easily found but sorely needed.

"There has been a breakthrough in terms of drawing attention to the obesity epidemic, said Levi. "Now we need a breakthrough in terms of policies and results. Poor nutrition and physical activity are robbing America of our health and productivity."

The TFAH report was based on data from 2004 to 2006 taken by the Centers for Disease Control. CDC studies say that obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD), such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In a population-based sample of 5 to 17-year-olds from a 2006 study, 70 percent of obese children had at least one CVD risk factor.

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