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WHO calls rising rates of obesity in kids ‘epidemic’

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Dec. 28, 2011) - Obesity is a rising epidemic among school-aged children in the Pacific region, according to the World Health Organization. Seven of the 10 most overweight countries in the world are Pacific island nations, and children in these nation-states are at increased risk for developing Type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.

A recent study released by the Regional Educational Laboratory Pacific, or REL Pacific, evaluated health education programs in seven jurisdictions: Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk, and Yap), and Palau.

The study, Nutrition and Physical Education Policy and Practice in Pacific Region Secondary Schools, was prepared by Pacific Resources for Education and Learning. It identifies the percentage of secondary schools that are taking measures to prevent childhood obesity in these regions by promoting student wellness, physical education, food service, and nutrition education.

The study addresses the need for more data on this growing epidemic, collecting statistics from state education agency websites and published reports; legislative documents; and country reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the WHO Western Pacific Regional Office.

Childhood obesity is often attributed to decreases in physical activity, increases in food portion sizes, and the availability of drinks and foods with high levels of saturated fats and sugar. The study discovered that important strides are being made throughout the Pacific region to promote student wellness, physical education, and nutrition education.

Many secondary schools have limited student access to snacks with high sugar or salt content, and provided courses covering nutrition, dietary behavior, and physical education in their curricula. Six out of seven jurisdictions have physical education standards, while five jurisdictions have student wellness and food policies.

There are areas for improvement. Hawaii is the only jurisdiction with a health advisory council, and fewer than half the jurisdictions provide nutrient content for school meals, or require physical education in every grade.

The study suggests state education agencies can do more by establishing school health councils; increasing prohibitions on advertising of candy, fast food, and soda in schools; including more nutrition and food service staff on school health councils; increasing principals' access to student wellness policies; and integrating families and communities.

Federal and state health education programs are one of the primary means of reaching children about fitness and nutrition. Reducing childhood obesity levels through physical education and nutrition programs in secondary schools will promote healthier children and healthier communities throughout the Pacific.

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