Healthier kids grow up to be healthier adults

WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, first lady Michelle Obama launched her campaign against childhood obesity with a round of TV appearances in which she discussed her struggles to help her young daughters maintain a healthy weight. She had hardly finished speaking when the roar of her critics erupted: Did she say "chubby"? How dare she embarrass her daughters! She shouldn't say "diet"!

There was also a broadside from University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, author of "The Obesity Myth." Writing in The New Republic, Campos claimed that Obama's crusade is "dangerous nonsense."

Happily, the first lady has soldiered on in her effort to draw attention to what is, in fact, an epidemic. An estimated 32 percent of children and adolescents are obese or overweight, according to public health experts. Some of them have already been stricken by chronic ailments that used to be reserved for adulthood, including high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.

Obesity isn't just a matter of personal choice or individual liberty. Emory University's Kenneth Thorpe, a professor of public health, says that it's a leading cause of soaring health care costs. "If the prevalence of obesity were the same today as in 1987, health care spending in the U.S. would be 10 percent lower per person, or about $200 billion less each year," he wrote in a report called "Weighty Matters." If current trends continue, more than 21 percent of health care costs will be related to obesity by 2018, he says.

Since obese children are likely to remain obese as adults, it makes sense to try to tackle the problem in childhood, when habits such as eating sensibly and getting regular exercise are more easily influenced. Obama's initiative, called "Let's Move," has four prongs: increased physical activity; more information about nutrition; increased access to healthy foods; and, of course, personal responsibility. The White House has assigned a task force across Cabinet-level departments to aid the effort.

As for Campos' claim that the obesity epidemic is a "myth," he might spend a little time with Dr. Mark Wulkan, chief surgeon at Atlanta's leading pediatric hospital. Wulkan has developed a specialty of performing bariatric surgery — a procedure that reduces the size of the stomach — on kids. He has seen adolescents weighing 400 to 500 pounds.

Wulkan, who calls Obama's campaign "fantastic," says that, in an abundance of caution, he restricts his operations to one or two a month, but "I could be doing several a week, and, to me, that is really scary."

"People were initially critical of our doing adolescent bariatric surgery because they thought we were trying to make them skinny for the prom. What we were trying to do is reverse diabetes, bad joint problems, high blood pressure, things you didn't see in kids before," he said.

Michelle Obama, too, has pushed back against critics who claim her campaign merely discriminates against the physically unattractive. "This isn't about inches and pounds or how our kids look," she has said. It's about making sure that our children live long and healthy lives.

E-mail Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at; follow her blog at

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