Swanston Conference Looks at Childhood Obesity

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As the rate of childhood obesity rises, so does its economic impact.

Beyond the conditions associated with childhood obesity – typically diabetes and fatty liver disease, along with adult issues such as hypertension and heart disease – the cost of obesity is close to $20,000 per child. Statewide, that runs to $4.2 million.

“The paradigm has shifted. We have not only an exponential increase in obesity across the board, but it’s happening in our youngest population,” said Dr. Emia Oppenheim, the keynote speaker at the William Swanston Charitable Fund’s Innovation Conference Thursday morning.

In 1970, she explained, the overweight and obesity rate for children between the ages of 2 and 5 was around 5%. Today, it’s about 30% .Oppenheim is coordinator of the Ohio Department of Health’s Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Program.

“If you extrapolate that over a lifetime, it significantly increases their chances of hypertension, diabetes, cancer and other conditions,” said Paul Dutton, chairman of the Swanston Fund. “In the end game, that means a more costly bill to treat unhealthy adults.”

Insurance costs for employers rise, the public burden of Medicare and Medicaid goes up and employees are less productive and miss more work than their counterparts with healthy weights.

“There is a direct link between having an unhealthy community and what the costs of that community are locally, statewide and nationally,” Dutton said.

The focus of the fund over the past two years – and into the foreseeable future – has been and will be health initiatives for at-risk children, he noted.

To combat childhood obesity, Oppenheim cited the Institute of Medicine’s 13 recommendations. Among the suggestions, she said, are encouraging kids to drink water instead of sweetened drinks, serve healthful food at every meal, offer plenty of time for physical activities and praise children when they do eat healthful food.

But what’s most important in the fight against childhood obesity, she said, is getting kids into healthful habits at an early age.

“We can impact health habits at a young age, when habits are newly formed or haven’t even formed at all. … When we provide quality meals, healthy education and plenty of physical activity, kids can have lasting health benefits.”

In areas of Appalachia, which includes Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, are food deserts, Oppenheim noted, which when coupled with the prevalence of fast-food chains and low-income areas, means nutritious food is hard to come by.

“The culture issues we see around the state are compounded. When you don’t have access to healthy food, you won’t eat [healthful food], which goes along with the income issues that they face as well,” she said. “There’s a low and poor choice selection as well as a lot of retail options for fast food.”

Part of what’s encouraging, she noted, is that organizations across the state are stepping up to combat childhood obesity.

“We’ve had private foundations build on the programs we started and really take them to the counties to encourage participation,” she said. “They’ve also helped us develop some materials and leverage funds to build the program out statewide.”

The conference also featured three workshops where discussions were held on sustainable community improvements, how nonprofit organizations evaluate design and how to reach Generation Z in marketing.

Pictured: Emia Oppenheim, coordinator of the Ohio Department of Health’s Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Program.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.