updated 9/30/2004 10:24:48 AM ET 2004-09-30T14:24:48

Schools, food makers, government agencies and families themselves must work together to reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity, a panel of scientists said Thursday.

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The prestigious Institute of Medicine called Thursday for the wide-ranging effort that includes less time in front of television and computer screens, changes in food labeling and advertising, more school and community physical education programs and education to help children make better choices.

“We must act now and we must do this as a nation,” said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan of Emory University in Atlanta, chairman of the committee that prepared the recommendations.

The report from the IOM, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, is the latest to focus on the sharp increase in childhood obesity. Over the last 30 years the rate of childhood obesity has tripled among youngsters aged 6 to 11 and has doubled for those aged 2 to 5 and 12 to 19, the institute reported.

“Obesity may be a personal issue, but at the same time, families, communities and corporations all are adversely affected by obesity and all bear responsibility for changing social norms to better promote healthier lifestyles,” added Koplan, former director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Healthier food, limit TV
Obesity can lead to increased likelihood of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep problems, high cholesterol, gallstones and other problems.

“Things have changed ... pushing kids to eat more and be less active,” observed Dr. Stephen R. Daniels of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

“It’s very clear that the solution is not in any one place,” said Daniels, of the hospital’s comprehensive weight management center.

“Ultimately the major approach to this is prevention ... we have to start early,” he said, urging cooperation of family, community, schools and industry.

Specifically, the panel suggested that parents to limit kids’ TV hours, that schools provide healthier food, that restaurants offer nutrition information and that communities provide more recreation opportunities.

On Tuesday, three U.S. Cabinet secretaries fanned out across the country to promote healthier lifestyles, especially among young people.

“The cities have got to set aside (safe) places for kids to get outside and walk or even ride their bicycles,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. Also on the road promoting healthier lifestyles were Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Surgeon General Richard Carmona and Education Secretary Rod Paige.

The IOM report calls for increased federal involvement, including creation of an interdepartmental task force to coordinate activities, developing nutrition standards for school food, setting guidelines for advertising and marketing to children and increases in research funding.

And it seconds Thompson’s call for increased recreational facilities, urging state and local governments and schools to expand opportunities for physical activity, including providing more facilities and more frequent and intense after-school programs.

Urban and suburban community designs that discourage walking and other physical activities, such as communities without sidewalks, are among the causes of the increase in youth obesity, the report said.

Other causes cited included increased use of convenience foods that are high in fat and calories, less physical activity in school and more leisure time spent in front of televisions and computer screens instead of playing outdoors.

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