Former President Bill Clinton, a reformed overeater, urged the nation's governors on Tuesday to embrace a long-term effort to change the nation's culture of too much food and too little exercise.
Clinton changed his eating habits after undergoing heart bypass surgery in September 2004.
He warned the governors that failure to change the nation's eating habits will weaken the economy and threaten the lives of its children.
"We have a huge cultural problem and unless we change it our children may grow up to be the first generation with shorter lifespans than we had," the former Arkansas governor told the National Governors Association at the last day of its annual winter meeting.
His pleas were heard by receptive governors who have already embarked on a multistate effort to share ideas and innovations in schools, workplaces and state offices that target the growth in obesity and diabetes.
Obesity rates have tripled over the past 40 years for children and adolescents from ages 6 through 19, raising their risk of risks of type 2 diabetes and a range of other diseases. The rise of diabetes among young people has caused the medical community to change its terminology — what used to be called adult onset diabetes is now type 2 diabetes, because it's turning up in children as young as 9, Clinton said.
Halting the rising obesity rates must be part of a larger challenge to the rising costs of health care, he said. If the country could reduce the nation's spending on health care — now 16 percent of the gross domestic product — down to 11 percent, the most other countries spend, it could save $700 billion.
Clinton asked governors to participate in a new school-focused program his foundation has helped launch which aims to improve the nutritional value of food served in cafeterias and vending machines, increase physical activity, provide health lessons and promote staff wellness.
The work won't be easy, because food — especially pre-made, processed food — has remained relatively cheap even as other parts of modern life have become more expensive. More research is needed on the role of different ingredients in food, like the reliance on fructose, he said. Health insurance can help in prevention and treatment.
But ultimately it comes down to people's choices.
"No matter what else you say, no matter what different studies show, you've got to consume less and burn more," Clinton said. "To do that you've got to change the culture."