US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Obesity epidemic is a national concern

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A Catholic approach to health care includes helping families maintain a better diet.<--break->

By Guest Blogger Deborah Proctor

In the last three decades, childhood obesity has tripled in the United States. This epidemic now plagues an estimated 9 million American children. It is estimated that more than one third of all children who were born in 2000 will eventually develop diabetes, which is caused by obesity, either during childhood or after adolescence.

As Catholics, our call to social justice is fundamental to extending the healing ministry of Jesus. We want heal all children, especially those who are at-risk of childhood obesity due to their socio-economic status. The high rates of obesity within low income communities is not only an indicator of injustice to a vulnerable population, but also an indicator that underserved members of our community who lack education and resources do not know how to make healthy decisions for themselves and their children, resulting in long-term health concerns for tomorrow's families and leaders.

Health care professionals are particularly concerned with obesity because diabetes can be catastrophic as it progresses. The younger patients are diagnosed, the earlier the health effects—kidney damage, nerve damage, eye disease, and coronary artery disease—emerge. All of these can happen in the prime of their lives.

As a Catholic health care organization, we think this is unacceptable. Through the model of community collaboration and partnerships established by our founding Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange nearly 100 years ago, our response was to launch Healthy For Life, a comprehensive social and health care outreach initiative that focuses on getting children and their families to develop healthy lifestyle choices, focusing on physical activity, self esteem, and diet. As part of our commitment to social justice, our first focus is reaching out to at-risk populations, children and families who are considered low income in each of the communities we serve.

Perhaps my favorite success story is a high school student named Otto. A poor diet and lack of activity had led to Otto being obese. He joined the Healthy For Life program and by his senior year, Otto had lost 150 pounds and served as a program ambassador, inspiring other youth to get healthy and fit.

One of the main components of the Healthy For Life program is a curriculum supplement used in more than 100 schools. This program helps thousands of students, more than 60 percent of whom are considered at-risk and the majority of which are Latino.

Research shows that minority communities have disproportionate levels of children who are overweight or obese, in part because low-income families have less discretionary income, less access to healthful foods, and less exposure to educational information about good nutrition. Unfortunately, healthy food is often the most expensive, especially fresh produce. For instance, the American Dietetic Association found that a low-income family would need to set aside a whopping 40 to 70 percent of its entire food budget to fruits and vegetables in order to meet the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, which recommends five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

We've worked with the Los Angeles Angels, Radio Disney, and renowned Mexican American chefs Jaime Martín del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu to promote this message (here's one example of an online video they did):


But we’ve also conducted outreach efforts through local parishes that serve many families who are often underserved and seek assistance through various health and human service programs. We hope that by involving local parishes, we would be able to demonstrate the spiritual as well as the physical connection to living a healthy lifestyle—all part of our effort to treat the body, mind, and spirit of people in the communities we serve.

Addressing childhood obesity, however, is not an easy task and cannot be achieved by St. Joseph Health System alone. In the months and years ahead, we must work together as a community of neighbors, businesses, and Christians to ensure social justice is met. There are millions of Americans all across our nation who look to us as examples in Christ to love our dear neighbors unconditionally, just as Jesus did. Please join us in our fight against childhood obesity. It’s imperative that we focus on helping children and their families choose healthy behaviors for life. We have to care together; we can’t afford not to. 

Guest blogger Deborah Proctor is President & CEO of St. Joseph Health System, an integrated Catholic health care delivery system sponsored by the St. Joseph Health Ministry.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.