While Israelis who travel to the US may marvel about how fat many Americans are, a new study by researchers at New York’s Mount Sinai-Icahn School of Medicine and Clalit Health Services’ Emek Medical Center in Afula has found childhood obesity rates here are “nearing those in the US.”

The researchers suggest that the causes of overweight here are like those in the US -- excess consumption of  cheap junk food and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. There goes -- at least among some -- Israel’s healthful Mediterranean diet. Nearly 17% of US children and teens are obese, according to the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
Extra weight carried by individuals, young and old, is contributing to the spread of diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses worldwide. One-in-five children are affected by excess body weight across all countries, according to the Obesity Update issued by the OECD last year.

The researchers reviewed over 100,000 electronic medical records of children from birth to 18 to understand the regional prevalence of childhood and adolescent obesity and its associated risk factors, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

The study included an analysis of the availability of nutritional food at local providers and the density of local play and outdoor spaces relative to their proximity to public schools and gathering places for children and adolescents. The researchers mapped the town of Afula and identified 193 food stores and retailers, more than 70 percent of which sold nutrition-poor food. Only 15 stores offered fresh fruits and vegetables. In total, there were three times as many fast food purveyors per thousand children as there were stores where fresh fruit was available.

The US has been ranked 18th in obesity among its adult population, with a third adult population considered obese, compared with Israel which ranks 49th, with 26 percent of its adult population obese. Obesity is defined as an adult having a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater to or equal to 30. BMI is calculated by taking a person’s weight in kilos and dividing it by the person’s squared height in meters.

For their study on childhood obesity here, Mount Sinai and Israeli researchers chose Afula’s Emek Medical Center, whose director-general is Dr. Orna Blondheim and whose patient population is very varied. Reflecting Israel’s population in general, about 75% are Jewish, 20% Arabs and the remaining 5% percent made up of  African immigrants, local Christians and other groups. It is the only tertiary care center in the northeast of the country. “We were impressed with the level of professionalism and dedication of our Mount Sinai guests and encouraged by their commitment to this important study,” Blondheim said.

“Considering the shift in this area from a traditionally Mediterranean diet to a more Western diet and lifestyle, we are interested in understanding the impact of this on public health,” said Dr. Jonathan Ripp, associate director of Mount Sinai Global Health (a new, institution-wide interdisciplinary program at The Icahn School of Medicine) and site mentor for the American team. “Given the staggering long-term public health implications of childhood and adolescent obesity, studies such as this have critical implications for helping government, health and social institutions develop better policies for the prevention and treatment of obesity and its consequences,” Ripp said.

Mount Sinai Hospital, founded in 1852, is a 1,171-bed teaching facility and one of the nation's oldest, largest and most-respected voluntary hospitals. Together, Mount Sinai and Emek plan to investigate and develop effective solutions for the rising public health concerns linked to childhood and adolescent obesity in the region. The study is the first of many collaborative projects planned by the two medical institutions, whose heads signed a memorandum of understanding in May to form a close collaboration. The accord will lead to mutual education, mutual visits of faculty and students and possibly to the initiation and development of additional joint projects.

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