Optimism on obesity? Many of us know the basics of the problem: Two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Georgia has the second-highest childhood...

Optimism on obesity?

Many of us know the basics of the problem: Two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Georgia has the second-highest childhood obesity rate in the nation. The associated health care costs are staggering, and they’re on the rise.

It all sounds much more alarming than encouraging.

But Dr. William Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the CDC, told an Atlanta audience Wednesday that he sees hopeful trends on the issue, including in Georgia.

Dietz spoke at an obesity program, sponsored by Georgia Bio, that included the state’s Public Health commissioner, academic researchers and a Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta executive.

“There is an incredible amount of activity going on,’’ Dietz told Georgia Health News, citing obesity initiatives in schools, day care centers and elsewhere. “The challenge is that the activity is not coordinated.’’

Among promising programs he cited are improvements in school nutrition; the U.S. first lady’s Let’s Move campaign; the increased promotion of breastfeeding; and CDC grants to communities to establish healthier habits and environments.

Dietz noted that the Let’s Move program for child care recommends at least one hour of physical activity, limited screen time (TV and computers), and better nutrition in meals served.

He drew a parallel between the incidence of obesity to that of cigarette smoking. As he noted, cigarette smoking peaked in the 1960s, but was lowered due to various factors: a ban on broadcast advertising; the nonsmokers’ rights movement; an increase in federal cigarette taxes; and the surgeon general’s report on secondhand smoke.

“Something similar may be happening with obesity,’’ he said, noting that obesity trends are flattening out as programs to encourage healthy weight have taken hold.

Georgia and Tennessee have launched compelling initiatives, Dietz added. The Atlanta BeltLine project, he said, will add up to 1,300 acres of new parks and green space, and allow more children to walk to school.

While such urban areas can be redesigned, rural areas would require different solutions, he said.

The commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, said the Georgia SHAPE initiative, with its fitness assessment of students, has begun generating data on the obesity problem.

SHAPE now features a new website, Georgiashape.org, which lists cooking, exercise and nutrition information and has a directory of fitness programs and farmers’ markets by ZIP code.

Last month, Gov. Nathan Deal announced a statewide anti-obesity campaign, combining the work of state agencies with health providers and philanthropic groups.

Fitzgerald emphasized research that links schools’ physical activity programs with increased student performance on test scores. She has recommended the state school board consider “30 minutes of movement, every child and every day.’’

The Georgia Hospital Association is committed to the promotion of breastfeeding, Fitzgerald added. Breastfeeding helps protect against childhood obesity.

A mother who breastfeeds has less absenteeism and health costs than other new moms — a message that can be taken to employers, she said.

Linda Matzigkeit, chief administrative officer of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said her organization has trained more than 1,000 health care providers in the state on talking to patients and parents about nutrition, BMI and physical activity.

CHOA is also training school cafeteria managers and is working with youths as mentors to younger children.

“Physicians are really taking it to heart,’’ Matzigkeit said. “Physicians are changing the way they’re talking about [weight].’’

It’s not an overnight solution, because the problem has evolved over time, she noted.

With the increased public attention to obesity, Dietz said, “There’s no better time to capitalize on these opportunities than now.’’

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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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