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Giving obesity the boot; Soccer for Success will put 1,000 kids on the road to a healthier lifestyle

The United States is staring down the barrel of a gun, probably wielded by an overweight kid. Childhood obesity threatens the health of the nation in just about every way. It is a crisis not in the making, but already upon us and still burgeoning.

A program coming to Buffalo this fall could help to make a difference, but the need is far greater than the 1,000 students it will initially help. Soccer for Success has been operating in other cities since 2010. This fall, it will be available in Buffalo, combining athletics, nutrition education and mentorship to children living in at-risk communities.

Here are some measures of the crisis and the cost, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.

The percentage of children ages 6 to 11 in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents ages 12 to 19 years who were obese increased from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period.

In 2008, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Obese adolescents are also more likely to have prediabetes and are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and social and psychological problems.

Over the long term, obese children and adolescents are likely to be obese as adults and thus at greater risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis.

There are real and significant costs of these problems, to individuals, families, employers and society in general. One obvious example: An obese child who becomes an obese adult and develops severe illnesses may not be able to work and will rely on public assistance, including Medicaid, to treat the problems fomented by the bad habits that instigated childhood obesity.

The Soccer for Success program is coming to Western New York largely because of the efforts of Independent Health, and it offers the right combination of influences to combat the problem. Physical activity helps to improve health and build muscle mass, which is needed to burn calories. It is a critical part of the equation, especially as modern youth "activities," such as video gaming, have made children more sedentary than previous generations.

But proper nutrition is also a critical factor, and its absence has been at least as influential in producing frightening rates of obesity. At the heart of that problem is excessive consumption of sugar and over-reliance on prepared foods. We are eating more junk than ever and it is showing up on the bellies of children. (A counter-intuitive fact: Foods labeled as low fat can be especially unhealthy, because manufacturers add sugar to compensate for the loss of flavor. It's all on the label.)

Finally, mentoring is also a crucial component, because obese children deal with a range of difficult issues and the inherent stresses of making sometimes difficult changes in their habits.

For all the attention childhood obesity is receiving -- even first lady Michelle Obama has made it a cause -- it remains an insufficiently recognized ticking time bomb. Soccer for Success may help to make a difference for some lucky students, and Independent Health deserves the community's thanks for helping to bring the program here. But much more needs to be done if we are to save generations of children from lives that are very hard and unnecessarily short.