THE CHILDHOOD OBESITY EPIDEMIC
By: Sydney Tobler
As most children get older they get smarter, stronger and taller. But what is another trait that a number of children in today’s society are dealing with: getting wider. According to Better Health USA, the percentage of overweight or obese children has doubled in the past 30 years. Obesity is one of the biggest problems in the American society. When you think of the term “obese” what comes to mind? Most people hear “obese” and immediately think of food, overeating, fat, etc. The term “obese” is defined as having an unhealthy amount of body fat. According to WebMD a person is considered obese when his or her weight is 20% or more above normal weight. Even though overeating is one of the main causes of obesity it is not the only cause. Obesity is also affected by your genes, your age, the amount of exercise you get, and even the type of food you eat. It is possible to be overweight and live a healthy life; however, being overweight can also cause serious health problems. These health issues include type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea and metabolic syndrome.
My goal in this article is to provide information about obesity in children and to examine a few possible modifications to the school systems that could significantly help lower obesity rates in children. Obesity is a very serious issue to which there is no quick fix. The habits of society will need to significantly change before this epidemic can be resolved.
Almost everyone at some time or other has tried to break a habit, and everyone learns that old habits are hard to break. This is what makes solving the obesity epidemic so challenging. This is why I think healthy habits and lifestyles should be learned at an early age. Children have the ability to absorb information at an amazing rate. The habits they develop early on will affect them for their entire lives; so why not teach them healthy habits they will continue to make part of their everyday lives?
Research suggests that a child’s ability to learn, their behavior, their ability to control emotions and their risks for disease later in life are influenced by the quality of nurturing and support provided to them in their early years. There are several areas in children’s lives that could be adjusted to help this growing problem of obesity, but in my opinion the best and most effective way would be to teach these healthy habits in schools. The majority of children/adolescents spend approximately 35 hours a week at school, not including before and after school programs. But are schools sending children the right messages with vending machines and school stores, lack of nutritious lunches, and limited recess and physical activity? In my opinion these are a few of the aspects that are contributing to the increasing obesity numbers.
Having vending machines and school stores is beneficial for students because it gives them the option of mid-day snacks. But what would be the harm in getting rid of the “junk food” snacks and offering the students healthier snacks such as fruits or vegetables? Although vending machines and school stores bring in a lot of revenue for schools, they usually contain a selection of potato chips, candy bars, cookies, gum, and soda. Almost all of the items found in vending machines and school stores are high in sugar and fat, and have virtually no nutritional value. These types of foods are fine in moderation, but at school it is almost impossible to monitor what children buy and consume. This is not to say schools need to completely get rid of the vending machines or stores, but I do believe they need to provide their students with healthy options. In the book Our Overweight Children the author Sharron Dalton mentioned that a school district in Pennsylvania made the change and offered healthier alternatives in their beverage vending machines. The food service director Charles Damiani told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “We couldn’t keep them filled. It blew my mind. The milk machine outsells the soda machine two to one”. This shows that students can and will make healthier choices if they are provided with the options to do so.
Have you ever thought about what the children spend their lunch money on? Are they actually buying lunch or are they spending that money on snacks? Would it have been better to pack them a lunch? Another big concern about the school systems contributing to the increasing obesity rates are the school lunches. According to U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, the laws defining nutritional standards have not been updated in almost 30 years. According to Sharron Dalton’s book, Our Overweight Children, schools provide two types of lunches to their students, “some school meals are subsidized and regulated by the government and are therefore relatively healthy, though generally less popular. Other meals come direct from fast-food vendors and are nutritionally inferior but typically more popular”. Aside from no longer meeting the nutritional standards, the meals that are subsidized and regulated by the government are typically less popular among the students because a lot of the time they are frozen or canned and do not taste good. This causes a huge problem because if students do not like the food provided, they will not eat it. If the students are not eating the food the schools offers then what are they eating? A large percentage of students have admitted to only buying french-fries or chips and a soda for lunch. Of course this is not healthy but if the schools are not promoting healthy eating habits or providing decent meals then this will continue to happen. With the right resources and motivation Dalton says, “The school lunch program can be a key player in the fight against childhood obesity”.
According to the American Heart Association, regular physical activity is critical for the prevention of abnormal weight gain and weight maintenance. When I was in Elementary school my favorite part of the day was recess. Recess was a time where we could run around, play games, and take a break from sitting in the classroom all day. According to Dalton’s book, Our Overweight Children, recess has slowly started to disappear from the daily school schedule, often to make room for computer learning time. This is another part of the school system that needs to change. Recess is an important part in a child’s day. Not only so they can use their imagination and be kids but also so they can move around and be active. According to a survey done by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2001 only 3 percent of children met these standards. Keeping children active at young ages will get them into a routine for the rest of their lives. Even if schools cannot work physical education classes into their schedule and budget, I think it is a necessity to at least keep recess available.
Providing healthier food in vending machines and school stores, creating more nutritious lunches, and incorporating recess into a child’s daily routine are just a few strategies the school systems could use to help fight the growing obesity epidemic. There are a lot of other approaches. For example U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski reintroduced The Child Nutrition Promotion & School Lunch Protection Act. This act was to get the school systems to update their nutritional standards. Michelle Obama created Let’s Move. The goal of Michelle’s campaign is to “provide schools, families and communities simple tools to help kids be more active, eat better and get healthy.” The smallest change in your daily routine could make the biggest improvement in your health. It is never too late to live a healthy life.