On March 17th I was contacted by Melody Barnes, Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, and asked to submit my ideas for solving our country’s childhood obesity epidemic. The deadline was March 26th, so there wasn’t much time to get back to her with the solution to what is arguably the most difficult behavioral health problem our population has. But I was sure I could do it. I had been preparing for this job my whole life.

In case you haven’t heard, the CDC has declared obesity an “epidemic” in the country, with two-thirds of the population overweight, and one-third clinically obese. Obesity is poised to overtake smoking as the greatest single cause of preventable death in the country, and it is the biggest factor in our rising health care costs. The rate of obesity in adults has doubled in the last thirty years, and the rate in children has quadrupled. Eighty percent of obese children become obese adults, so the epidemic is growing exponentially. Children are now getting obesity-related diseases that until recently we saw only in adults, like type-two diabetes and high blood pressure. We are in big trouble with our obese lifestyle, and the President has made solving this problem a top priority. He ordered the creation of this task force and charged them with coming up with action plans to solve childhood obesity within a generation.

To be honest, I wasn’t the only person Melody asked. The President had asked Melody to chair the interagency Task Force on Childhood Obesity, and the Task Force had asked for public comments before they gave the President their action plan. So I figured I was one of about 300 million others that had been asked to comment.

Still, I am uniquely qualified to offer comments in this field. I’m a psychotherapist and expert in behavioral medicine specializing in weight control. I train other therapists in my methods and I have a successful book, The Anderson Method, that teaches people how to solve their obesity problem. I grew up as an obese child with all the experiences of the “fattest kid in school”, and I solved my obesity problem when I lost 140 lbs. after twenty-five years of dieting failure. I’ve maintained my success now for twenty-five years. So I figured I had a lot to offer, even if they had to sift through 300 million other comments.

As it turns out, she emailed me March 26th and said they had received only 800 comments, and five of them were mine! So now I think there is a good chance that my ideas may get used. To increase the chance that they are, I am asking readers of this story to write in and tell the Task Force that my suggestions should be forwarded to the President.

President Obama wants action that will accomplish four main objectives: Ensuring access to healthy, affordable food; increasing physical activity in schools and communities; providing healthier food in schools; and empowering parents with information and tools to make good choices for themselves and their families. I’ve come up with five ideas that I think are the five best courses of action that the executive branch can take to accomplish the mission. Here they are:

Five Suggestions for the Task Force on Childhood Obesity
1) Create financial incentives for adults to maintain a healthy weight.
2) Award the “President’s Medal for Championship of the Healthy American Way”.
3) Get the whole country walking again with mass transportation.
4) Require schools to adopt policy that creates a “healthy eating” culture.
5) Prohibit “Junk Food” advertising that targets children.

Here are the details:
1) Create financial incentives for adults to maintain a healthy weight.
No matter what the schools and the government do, kids are subject to the influence of their parents and their environment. If the school is telling the kids to eat like a dietitian, and the kids go home to junk food snacking, huge portions and fast food, all that effort goes to waste.

The President has asked the task force to empower parents with information and tools. Some people may think that printing booklets and making videos is the way to get the information and tools to parents, but the key to empowering parents to make good choices is to motivate them to use the information and tools. The information and tools already exist for anyone who looks around. When parents want to maintain a healthy weight, they will find them and use them. If maintaining a healthy weight is not the top priority, they won’t use them, even if you hand them out. We can make sure good information is available, but unless the parents want to pick it up and put it to work, no amount of distribution of these things will do any good.

I suggest that the federal agencies work together to create financial incentives for parents to maintain a healthy weight themselves. If the parents are not maintaining their own weight properly, they are ill equipped to lead their children in the right direction. Public efforts to encourage healthy habits and lifestyle directed at children are sabotaged if the parents and the parents’ home encourage an obese lifestyle.

Since our individual and collective health care costs are so impacted by obesity, and our federal treasury and budget are so impacted by health care and health care insurance costs, I’m sure a scientific method could be employed to determine some sort of tax or insurance premium rebate directly to individuals who maintain a healthy BMI. We can calculate it so the net result will be a savings to the nation rather than a cost! Everybody wins!

The best way to empower parents with information and tools to help themselves and their families make good choices is to lead them to want the information and tools and to want use them.

2) Award the “President’s Medal for Championship of the Healthy American Way”.
The President would award medals inscribed “President’s Champion of the Healthy American Way” to individuals in every city and county in the country, up to once a month in large cities. These would be teachers, civic leaders, parents, children —anyone who has made a difference by leading the people to a healthier way of living.

The reversal of our childhood obesity epidemic will be a result of the whole community adopting healthier lifestyles. Children need to grow up in an environment that helps them to aspire to be healthy. With this program, we would hold up examples to serve as models, give them the recognition and stature of a high honor, and this will help the entire community, especially the children, value and emulate healthy thinking and behavior.

Local leaders will jump at the chance to present these awards and get the publicity associated with this program. The media will love to provide free promotion when the presentations are conducted. Everyone will be thinking about healthy living every time nominations are called for.

The President himself can generate great publicity and excitement about these honors when he first announces the program and every time he chooses to bring it up. This will lead all Americans to imagine themselves as healthy leaders, especially the children, and to aspire to it.

Costs associated with the program could be covered through commercial sponsors, companies who promote health-generating products and services, and the promotion of the promotion would further help to create the health culture that we need.

3) Get the whole country walking again with mass transportation.
The best way to encourage increased physical activity in schools and in the community is to promote walking and to discourage the use of private vehicular transportation. A federally coordinated effort in this vein would not only serve to encourage the improved health of the entire population, but it would decrease the amount of gasoline we burn and all the environmental damage caused by it. I suggest a coordinated effort by federal agencies to build a mass transit system and to create incentives and funding for states and cities to build them.

Imagine all of our cities with public transport the likes of Disneyworld, where people from rural areas drive only as far as access to good monorails and trams. Imagine urban and suburban areas where no one drives and everyone takes trolleys or subways to get around town.

Anyone who has lived in or visited a real city will tell you how much exercise they got, and how unnecessary cars were. We can keep our cars ready to use when needed, and get out and walk if our cities and transportation systems encourage it.

Children, as citizens in the mix, will be more influenced to be active by living in such a culture than by anything else that schools or governmental agencies could do or say to them.

4) Require schools to adopt policy that creates a “healthy eating” culture.
While what the schools serve at meals is important, I think that what the kids are exposed to at other times and places in school is more important.

Where I live, the cafeterias have nutritious meals, but what is happening elsewhere in school is a disaster. Kids are being rewarded with candy, fed cake and ice cream at parties, invited to “Ice Cream Galas” and “Domino Pizza Nights” to celebrate a grade point average. They are taught math using M&Ms, with pictures of candy in their homework. There are vending machines at school selling junk food!

I suggest that schools be required to adopt and enforce school policy that would, at the least:
1) Prohibit the provision and promotion of food unless it meets certain nutritional standards, the standards to be established by an appropriate federal agency.
2) Require all school personnel to refrain from promoting food and behavior that is consistent with obesity and overeating, such as junk food snacking and the “recreational eating” that is popular at events such as the Superbowl. I’m sure there are policies that prohibit teachers from advocating smoking, alcohol and “recreational” drugs. Those policies could serve as a model to follow.

Schools could be required to have these policies in place and enforced in order to qualify for federal benefits and comply with federal rules. Policing and enforcement of these policies would not be necessary for this strategy to be effective. The teaching that occurs simply as a result of the existence of these policies would be beneficial. At the moment, no one is telling or requiring teachers not to provide the wrong messages, as far as I know.

5) Prohibit “Junk Food” advertising that targets children.
I suggest legislation or federal agency rules that prohibit advertising junk food when the ads target kids, similar to the way cigarette advertising was banned from broadcast and even print media when it was targeting children.

For food to be advertised targeting children, the food would have to meet criteria as a healthy food, standards that a federal agency establishes.

Fast food and cereal companies will still need to advertise to kids to maintain their brand name, product position and market share. Right now, no company can advertise healthy food, because those advertising sugary and fatty treats (more appealing because we are “hard wired” to seek these foods) will win every time in a competition for market share. If they are all forced to advertise with healthier food featured, the result will be a shift in the culture’s norms and attitudes about desirable food.

This would influence the marketplace toward providing healthier food, away from advertising and demanding unhealthy food, and improve access to healthy food.

Please help insure that these suggestions reach the task force. Write to them and let them know you like my ideas, and add in your own too. Here’s who to send it to: Task Force on Childhood Obesity, Office of the Secretariat, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Ave., SW Room 116-A Whitten Building, Washington, DC 20250

For more information about my work, go to http://www.TheAndersonMethod.com

Author's Bio: 

William Anderson, MA, LMHC, is a licensed psychotherapist residing in Sarasota, Florida, specializing in weight control. He is the author of the revolutionary new weight loss self-help book, The Anderson Method (Two Harbors Press, 2009, $14.95), and he is training a growing network of licensed therapists in his successful weight loss program. Anderson developed his approach when, as a behavior therapist, he permanently lost 140 pounds over 20 years ago after 25 years of diet and exercise failure. More information can be obtained at http://www.TheAndersonMethod.com.