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Let's hope the 'Let's Move' initiative isn't too late

Published March 20. 2010 09:00AM

If you call the Korean War a draw, the United States has only ever lost one war of any significance: the Vietnam War.

Almost every explanation for how that occurred mentions that civil unrest kept the government from issuing an all-out offensive and that a people fighting for their lives, land, and culture fights far harder than a primarily conscripted force fighting halfway around the world for an abstract idea.

Though I'm no historian, I believe there's another equally important reason for why the U.S. lost the war.

A late start.

The Vietnam War began in 1954, seven years before the U.S. sent support troops, 10 before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and 15 before U.S. troop totals reached 550,000. But the Vietnam War began months after the Korean War, a war that started only five years after WWII ended.

Even though he was a former five-star general and the supreme commander when the Allied troops invaded Europe in 1944, President Eisenhower could not sell Congress or the public on doing battle again so soon.

The details of this military debacle came back to me as I read the newspaper one day, but the article had nothing to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, troop reduction, or troop deployment. The article announced first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity.

It's called "Let's Move," and its goal, according to Mrs. Obama, is an ambitious one: "to solve the problem of childhood obesity in a generation so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight."

I applaud her initiative. I just worry that, like U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, we are entering the fray too late.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, only one in 20 12-to-19 year olds (the upper third of what the CDC defines as childhood) was obese in 1980. By 1988, the figure was greater than one in 10.

Why didn't the government intervene then?

By 1999, the figure was nearly one out of every six, and by 2003 it was even worse than that, an estimated 17.6 percent were obese, or nearly two out of every 11.

On the heels of Mrs. Obama's announcement came this bleak report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: that gastric-banding surgery was more effective in helping severely obese teens lose significant amounts of weight than lifestyle interventions that included individualized diet plans, exercise sessions with a personal trainer, and consultations with health care providers.

Over a two-year period, in fact, the gastric bands allowed subjects to lose 79 percent of their excess weight. The aforementioned lifestyle interventions only created a 13 percent loss.

Equally as disturbing is the CDC's recent disclosure that one in five American teens has at least one risk factor for developing heart disease in adulthood. While the risk factors, such as having a high level of triglycerides, low levels of good cholesterol, or high levels of bad cholesterol, can occur in teens at a healthy weight, generally they do not.

Fortunately, these risk factors can be mitigated with small, incremental changes. Sarah Wally, a dietitian with the National Association for Margarine Manufacturers, notes in an article for Medical News today that replacing a butter with a soft spread margarine is one way to start and that the change is greater than the 40-calorie difference per serving.

For instance, a Journal of the American Medical Association study found that this single change resulted in a nine percent drop in the LDL levels in children, so maybe the change that Mrs. Obama is seeking isn't impossible. But even she admits it's serious enough for the change to require politicians, medical personnel, community groups, educators, and parents to work together.

But if research done by Sarah Anderson, PhD, of Ohio State University College of Public Health in Columbus, and Robert Whitaker, MD, of Temple University in Philadelphia is found to be true, the most significant inroads in the battle against childhood obesity can be made by that last group, the parents.

Anderson and Whitaker found that altering three family routines reduced the risk of obesity in preschoolers by almost 40 percent. The alterations are limiting the time the child watches television to less than two hours a day, making sure he or she gets more than 10.5 hours of sleep a night, and eating dinner together as a family six or seven times a week.

Even though the three alterations were most effective together, even a single change reduced the odds of obesity by more than 23 percent.

So if parents begin instituting single, incremental changes in the way their children eat and exercise, Mrs. Obama just might see the childhood obesity rate begin to decline. And then she can hope that Domino Effect analogy first made by President Eisenhower to get the U.S. involved in the Vietnam War that free countries fall like a row of dominoes once one turns communist also applies to kids' bad habits once they begin to make healthy lifestyle changes.

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