How to stop obesity before it starts

By Dr. Jeffrey Mason and Donna pinto

We have heard time and again about our nation’s obesity epidemic, and one way we can tackle the crisis is to look at where it often begins — in childhood.

In California alone, more than 30 percent of children ages 10 to 17 are obese or overweight. The national trend also is alarming — the obesity rate among children and adolescents has nearly tripled since 1980.

Without immediate action, these children will likely become obese adults and a recent study indicates that this is an issue of life and death. Obese children are twice as likely as their healthy-weight peers to die from disease before age 55, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. In addition, obesity is also straining our national economy with America spending $147 billion in direct health care costs associated with poor diet and physical inactivity, according to the UnitedHealth Foundation’s 2011 America’s Health Ranking®.

We cannot remain idle. That’s why UnitedHealthcare is supporting six organizations in Southern California to help fight the obesity epidemic, aided by a $1,000 grant to each group through the UnitedHealth HEROES program. More than 280 schools and community-based organizations nationwide, including 12 in California, have received UnitedHealth HEROES grants to implement local, hands-on programs to fight childhood obesity in their communities.

We are encouraging youth, parents, educators and members of the community to join us in this effort. It can be as simple as the program from SuperFood Drive and their “SuperKids for SuperFoods Program,” which empowers middle school youth to lead SuperFood Drives to benefit low-income communities in need of healthy food. SuperKids were presented a tote bag filled with non-perishable SuperFoods, recipe cards and coupons to inspire 1,200 students to eat healthy at a local “high-need” middle school. This spring, students taught their peers and families about healthy eating, nutrition, label reading and how to create healthy recipes.

Here are additional ideas on how to help keep kids active and eating right:


• Have your kids help in the kitchen, packing a healthy lunch or making a nutritious dinner.

• Have a basket of fruit and vegetables out for kids to snack on throughout the day.

• Have your kids try one new food every week; you never know if your children will like eggplant if they don’t try it!

• Experiment with smoothies. Carrots, spinach, a handful of berries and some low-fat yogurt make a delicious and nutritious treat. Kids will think it’s dessert!


• Encourage your child to walk or bike to school. If you drive them, arrive early and take a walk around the school before starting the day or when you pick them up at the end of the day.

• Some city recreation centers have indoor pools for a nominal fee.

• If you belong to a gym, take your child with you. Many gyms have a childcare center with lots of activities to entertain kids while mom and dad are working out.

• Stretch your legs and go for a hike or a walk.

It’s time to empower youth as problem-solvers in the fight against childhood obesity. If we work together as a community, we can achieve our common goal of helping our children’s generation overcome obesity.

To learn more about the HEROES program or how to apply for HEROES grants, visit

Dr. Jeffrey Mason is the senior medical director of UnitedHealthcare of Southern California. Donna Pinto is the resource development consultant for the SuperFood Drive in Solana Beach.