For a long time, childhood and obesity weren’t a natural pair. It wasn’t until later — the teen years, specifically — that issues of weight loss became pervasive. But today, that timeline has changed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates increased from 5 to 18.1 percent from 2007 to 2008 among ages 12 to 19.

These statistics are alarming, and it only gets worse. A recent study in Britain found that girls are more likely to be overweight by age 7 than boys. According to the University of London study, about one in four girls are overweight by age 7, as compared to only one in six boys.

Obesity has now invaded childhood. This isn’t a problem unique to Britain. Childhood obesity is an issue across the United States. And the problem is even bigger for adults. According to recent CDC statistics, about 65 percent of adults are at least overweight, if not obese.

Though it’s clear that obesity is a major problem in this country, it’s not yet time to panic. Obesity can be tackled and prevented through healthy eating. Because it can be tricky to navigate through the world of nutrition, registered dietitians become essential. Dietitians are food and nutrition professionals with educational training. Many accredited graduate and undergraduate programs exist across the nation, and the University’s School of Public Health has a graduate program in Human Nutrition for students looking to become dietitians.

As agents of preventative medicine, registered dietitians are at the forefront of the fight against obesity. And yet the University doesn’t have a nutrition undergraduate major. There is no easy way for students hoping to become dietitians to major in a speciality that will assist them in achieving that goal as they graduate. These forlorn students are left with some unappealing options: create their own major, — also known as the Individual Concentration Program — study a loosely related major or wait until graduate school and attend the School of Public Health. Any way you look at it, there’s no opportunity for University students to become a dietitian directly after getting an undergraduate degree. Although the University would need the American Dietetic Association’s accreditation before forming a nutrition major, it’s possible to attain and has been done elsewhere in the state.

It’s not unusual for universities to have undergraduate dietetic programs. Michigan State University, for instance, has an undergraduate program in dietetics that has been approved by the ADA. After completing an internship and an examination, students in the program at MSU are then qualified to be practicing registered dietitians.

But it’s not so easy at the University. As a sophomore, I was interested in becoming a registered dietitian. After realizing that there was no way to do so as an undergraduate, I decided to fulfill all the prerequisites that graduate schools with dietetics programs required. My first step was to make my own major under the Individual Concentration Program. After meeting with an ICP adviser, I learned that other students had made their own nutrition majors. Unfortunately, it’s ICP policy to not share the details of other students’ devised majors. But there was another issue blocking my way — the graduate schools. Each one’s requirements varied slightly, making it nearly impossible to devise a logical schedule. The University’s School of Public Health wants students to take calculus, for instance, while Columbia University requires statistics. Navigating the various prerequisites was becoming a career in itself.

My next step was to transfer into the School of Kinesiology. While it wasn’t an exact fit, some of the prerequisites — biology and physics, for example — for movement science overlapped. But after a few months, I found that I was learning very little about nutrition. I decided to spend my undergraduate education elsewhere and transferred back to LSA.

Ultimately, my interest in becoming a dietitian waned. On some level this is because the University doesn’t offer a compatible program for undergraduates hoping to become registered dietitians. Students at the University who want to become dietitians after they graduate must first pay tuition for four years to study an unrelated major, and then they must pay even more for graduate school. They don’t actually get to help people until many years after they’ve finished their undergraduate education.

One of the reasons I turned away from becoming a dietitian was because I didn’t want to wait until after graduate school to start helping people — surely this reasoning applies to others too. Obesity — not just for children — is a huge issue in this country. It affects millions of people daily. The University should create an undergraduate program geared toward those who want to become registered dietitians. It’s time for the University to join the fight.

Mary Demery can be reached at mdemery@umich.edu.

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