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White House officials think childhood obesity is not a problem. Have they seen the data?

Officials called a focus on childhood obesity “inexplicable” in leaked memo.

Of the 20 largest countries in the world, the US had the worst rate of childhood obesity, with 13 percent of children now obese.
Digital Vision/Getty

Childhood obesity is arguably one of the biggest and most troubling problems in health today. Among high-income countries, America boasts the highest obesity rates for girls and boys — which was a big part of the reason the Obama White House, and the former first lady Michelle Obama in particular, singled out childhood obesity as a key policy priority.

Now it seems the Trump White House is also focused on childhood obesity — but instead of solving it, the administration wants to defund efforts to tackle the problem, according to the memo obtained by Brian Beutler at Crooked Media. It’s yet another sign this administration is trying to undo Obama’s policy legacy as quickly as possible. (See what’s happening with the EPA and the Affordable Care Act for more evidence.)

“Childhood obesity,” the White House officials wrote, “this is a priority of the [Health Human Services] Secretary for inexplicable reasons. Whatever has been designated to it should probably be reversed. Not a priority of this administration.”

The memo was sent by members of the Domestic Policy Council to the Office of Management and Budget, an effort to communicate the administration’s wishes and priorities for inclusion in the budget Trump will propose to Congress in 2018.

In August, Trump’s recently deposed Health Human Services Secretary Tom Price called childhood obesity “one of our top three clinical priorities, alongside the opioid crisis and serious mental illness.” The statement echoed Michelle Obama, who had a successful record of fighting the obesity epidemic and improving nutrition — both symbolically and through advocacy for legislation.

But now an array of Obama-era efforts to push the food industry in a healthier direction are under threat. The Trump White House has repeatedly signaled a desire to back off the issue, even relaxing school lunch regulations that were targeted at making the food in schools more nutritious.

In the memo, the White House also said the CDC must shift funding away from programs for chronic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes — especially “playgrounds/nutritional nannying” — and focus instead of “data-driven programming” related to infectious diseases.

Has the Trump administration seen the data on childhood obesity?

We’ve had good data conveying the severity of the childhood obesity crisis for years. Just last week, the Lancet medical journal published a new report on the state of childhood obesity. It found the rate of obesity for children and adolescents had risen tenfold globally in the past 40 years.

“If current trends continue,” the World Health Organization said in a related press release, “more children and adolescents will be obese than moderately or severely underweight by 2022.”

Of the 20 largest countries in the world, the US had the worst rate of childhood obesity, with 13 percent of children now obese.

Having a high body weight is now considered a risk factor for a range of chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, and a number of cancers. And as obesity has become more common, so has the toll for these health problems.

As we’ve reported, a high body weight contributed to 4 million deaths globally — or 7 percent of the deaths from any cause — in 2015. Most of those deaths were caused by cardiovascular disease, with diabetes following closely behind, along with kidney disease and cancers.

Chart showing increase in severe obesity levels in children and teens Sarah Frostenson/Vox

This is a massive number: It’s more than the deaths caused by traffic accidents, Alzheimer’s, or other deadly issues that get a lot of airtime, like terrorism, combined.

Children who are obese are more likely to become adults who are obese. They are more likely to suffer with these obesity-related chronic diseases — which cost the US more than $150 billion each year. It’s “inexplicable” that the White House doesn’t think this is a priority.

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