Ok this is off topic and I may be going out on a limb here, but my wife and I recently went “day care shopping” for our daughter, and I couldn’t help notice the difference between what the kids were eating at the day care schools and the way we eat at home. Not to hold myself up as any pillar of virtue, mind you. I’ve been known to woof down the occasional twinkie, and recently hurt myself this summer touring the Bluebell Ice Cream Factory by sampling four complete scoops of varied flavors consecutively–but the key word here is “occasional.” (To me, that means not every day.) Anyway, I remembered an article I read recently about how the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new report indicating that an estimated 42% of Americans will be obese by the year 2030—and I got to thinking, how did we get to be so fat? Then came the day care connection, and the thought entered my mind that maybe it’s a tough habit to break because we pick it up earlier than we think.
Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States. Today, around 20% of children aged 6-11 in public schools are obese, up from just 7% in the early 80’s. The problem among teens isn’t much better. 18% of students aged 12-19 are obese, nearly four times the low 5% we enjoyed thirty years ago. The causes are diverse, from popular high-calorie options in school meals to the abolition of many physical education programs to a general lack of nutritional education classes in our public schools. The solutions are likely just as diverse, and while we may be on the right track with some of them, there is still a lot of work ahead of us in improving the quality of the meals in our public schools.
First, one of our biggest problems may be a cultural lack of education and understanding about the composition of a healthy meal. Many people seem to believe that fat is the only cause of obesity, and that cutting fat is progress. This is not true; fats often take more energy (in calories) to transform into body fat as simple carbohydrates do. Simple carbohydrates are also vastly more prevalent, thanks to the refining process we use to produce corn syrup and other corn derivatives. In our crusade against fat, we have also prejudiced ourselves against some healthy foods, like fish, ham, lean beef, and poultry. Proteins are among the most filling foods in part because it takes more energy to digest and incorporate their caloric content into our bodies. Simple carbohydrates are among the least filling for an inverse reason; they’re second only to alcohol in the ease with which our bodies metabolize them into body fat. Saturated fat is a true problem, but we have largely lumped the good with the bad and demonized fats altogether.
While we may limit our serving sizes for French fries or our fat content for chocolate milk, as a nation we are still unconvinced that a carbohydrate heavy diet is part of the problem. When we do limit the density of simple carbohydrates in our school meals, students often find them elsewhere, and usually they find them in the ubiquitous vending machines in public schools all over our nation. From candy to chips to corn syrup-based carbonated drinks, students everywhere are supplementing or even replacing their healthy school meal options with junk food. The problem here is often money. Schools have come to rely on vending machines and the corporate entities that push those products for a portion of their funding, and they cannot easily rid themselves of the machines without making serious cuts to their badly strained budgets.
Swapping a Negative for a Positive
School meals also are often high in sodium and low in fiber. Heavily processed or commercially prepared foods, such as pizzas, breaded chicken fingers or nuggets, burritos, and beef patties make up as much as 40% of school lunch entrée options. These are heavy contributors to the high sodium, low fiber content in our public school meals.
The result of all this is that America’s children are increasingly obese. They are developing myriad physical and psychological problems. Many have glucose levels indicative of prediabetes, a serious risk factor for adult type II diabetes. They are developing sleep apnea and joint problems. Obese children are at serious risk of adult onset heart disease and osteoarthritis. Furthermore, these children are at higher risk for a broad variety of cancers, from heart to kidney to breast and prostate, Hodgekin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
Learning to be Lightweight
These are dark tidings for our children indeed, but I am told there are solutions on the horizon. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 calls for big improvements to school lunch nutrition. Under the Act, many of the problems with school meals are addressed directly and requirements are now in place to bring healthier meals to the classrooms of America. Time will tell whether this strategy will be effective, but many have high hopes in this regard.
Of the problems that need to be addressed foremost, vending machines top the list. From elementary to high school, the percentage of children consuming these high energy, low nutrition snack foods with their school meals weighs in at 17% to around 40% respectively. If we have to pay a little more to make up for the funds that schools would lose by eliminating these machines, we may very well make up for the expense with reduced medical costs for these children later in life.
Next in importance is the need for nutritional education. I have to ask myself and our country, seriously: if we want to reduce healthcare costs, why isn’t this a priority curriculum? Very few schools have dedicated classes on nutrition and wellness, and a little education can go a long way toward better health. “Health” classes in schools normally focus either on exercise alone or on sex education (an equally important but separate issue). While these are important topics, there is little said about macronutrient balance, caloric intake, or the importance of a diet that includes natural raw fruits and vegetables.
Education on caloric intake is vital, as is the need to measure the fat & sugar/corn syrup calories our children consume in public schools. While exercise is a necessary component of cardiovascular, muscular, and skeletal health, it is not the most important factor for obesity. That problem is all wrapped up in our intake. Our children need to learn that skipping the cheese on a burger can do as much to lower their bodyweight as twenty minutes of brisk walking. Our school administration needs to know how many (and more importantly what kind) of calories are in their meals and what effect that can have when weighed against the students’ basal metabolic rate and activity level. More focus on lean proteins and unsaturated fats will improve school meals markedly.
Though they say change is coming for America’s school meal programs, the plan is not complete, nor is the mission accomplished. Of course I’m no expert, but I was thinking that maybe if we start asking the tough questions about how it happened, perhaps with a little effort we will all be able to look forward to a healthier America in 2030 rather than 50% of us rolling around like Weebles from vending machine to vending machine across the countryside.
Want to weigh in on this topic? (Ooh, that one hurt!) Please leave comments.