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How to help curb the obesity epidemic

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Childhood obesity is on the rise, and we can't afford to sit idle and simply watch our children's waistlines grow. In Oregon alone, an estimated 24.3 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17 are considered overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The short- and long-term impacts of obesity on our children's health can be devastating. They range from greater risk of bone and joint problems to cardiovascular disease such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Overweight children are more likely to become overweight or obese adults, putting them at greater risk for such health issues such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer and osteoarthritis.

It's also an epidemic of life or death. A recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that children who are obese are twice as likely to die from disease before they reach age 55. These are sobering thoughts, but the good news is that obesity is preventable and reversible. As many parents and children seek to undo unhealthy weight gain following the recent holiday season, it's a great time to ask ourselves, 'What can we do to reverse this alarming and potentially deadly trend?'

Foremost, the home can play an important role. From a child's first breath, the top priority for every parent should be to make sure the child is properly fed, which means plenty of healthful food, but not more than a youngster needs.

Early health screenings for children can also detect many potential issues, including obesity. By measuring a child's body mass index, a doctor or nurse can detect weight issues early and help get the child on the right track through exercise and nutrition counseling, further testing or other programs aimed at preventing obesity.

Health and human services providers - nutritionists, schools and health care companies - can further help tackle childhood obesity by educating children and parents about healthy nutrition and proper exercise.

To be sure, there are significant efforts under way to help fight childhood obesity. Last year, First Lady Michelle Obama launched a new initiative called 'Let's Move!' with an ambitious goal of solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation.

For its part, UnitedHealthcare of Oregon is also investing in our children's health through the UnitedHealth HEROES program, a service-learning, health literacy initiative developed in collaboration with Youth Service America, a national nonprofit.

In Oregon, UnitedHealthcare this month provided five grants totaling $3,000 to schools and youth-focused, community-based organizations. The grants are helping these organizations create and implement local, hands-on programs to fight childhood obesity in their communities.

One of the grant recipients, Albany General Hospital Foundation, received a $1,000 grant to develop a school garden program at Timber Ridge Elementary School. The garden will help students establish and maintain healthy eating habits.

Efforts like these can help improve the lives of our children. So let's all work together toward this common goal of helping our children's generation overcome obesity.

For more information on 'Let's Move!' go to www.letsmove.gov/. To learn more about the UnitedHealth HEROES grant program, visit /www.ysa.org/HEROES.

Dr. Roger Muller is the senior medical director for UnitedHealthcare of Oregon