Bill Clinton was touring Africa last week--seeing for himself the effects of disease and undernourishment on a generation of the continent's children--when his thoughts turned to kids back home who have the opposite problem. The number of American children who are obese has reached 9 million. In the past three decades, obesity rates have more than doubled for kids 2 to 5 and tripled for kids 6 to 11. As Clinton is fond of saying, this could be the first generation of Americans whose lives will be shorter than their parents'.
What can he do about it? We're about to find out. In May, Clinton and the American Heart Association announced a campaign to reduce childhood obesity in the U.S. within 10 years. The effort will begin in earnest in September, and as I traveled with the former President last week, he outlined his plans.
He's going to start by talking to the kids, visiting schools around the country and telling his story. He was overweight as a child--by age 15, he weighed 210 lbs.--a problem he attributes partly to genetics and partly to a diet rich in barbecue, fried chicken, ice cream and pie. At the White House, he was an avid jogger with a taste for junk food. His weight fluctuated from 214 to 236. By the time he had his first heart operation last fall, he had taken off much of that extra weight, thanks to a modified South Beach diet and a lot of walking.
But talking to schoolchildren won't change anything, he says, if the food industry doesn't change. He acknowledges there has been progress lately--McDonald's, for example, is now one of the largest purchasers of apples in the U.S.--but the core menu is the same: burgers, sodas and fries. Clinton plans to petition restaurant chains to go beyond offering healthy alternatives. He wants them to rethink how that core menu is prepared in the first place--with healthier burgers, say, or less fattening fries.
"Easy to state and hard to achieve" is how Clinton describes his ideas. He's already saving young lives on the other side of the world, and soon we'll see whether he can do the same for children here.
Sanjay Gupta is a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent