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The Epidemic of Obesity September 11, 2008

Filed under: Health,nutrition — jordysullivan @ 6:47 pm
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The schools play a large role in the health of our nation’s children. With children spending a large proportion of their time during the school year at school, the time that they spend there should be spent promoting mental and physical health as much as possible. Obesity has become an epidemic and the schools can accept a large part of the blame. Recess has been cut at many schools. The cafeterias serve high fat, high calorie menus. Home economics classes reinforce unhealthy habits. And gym classes teach kids to loath the very idea of exercise. This responsibility cannot be left solely to the parents.

Over the last decade or so, obesity has become a growing epidemic among children. They carry their weight and unhealthy habits on to adulthood, when they pass these traits on to their own children. In 1982 only 4% of children were overweight. This increased to 16% in 1994. In 2001 the percentage of obese American children had reached a whopping 25%! (pmmedia.com) The health problems resulting from these negative lifestyles will ultimately shorten their lives. “[A] new study suggests one in four overweight children is already showing early signs of type II diabetes.” (www.pmmedia.com) These habits and addictions are formed primarily in two places, at home and in the schools. It is not a matter of vanity; even skinny people can harbor toxic fat.

Children aren’t allowed to run on playgrounds at school anymore because the teachers are afraid that they will fall and hurt themselves. The risk of obesity is much higher and the exercise that kids get on the playground is very important in order to prevent it. 78% of Americans do not meet basic activity level recommendations. (www.pmmedia.com) A skinned knee is preferable to a bad heart. According to Joe Frost, emeritus professor of early childhood education at the University of Texas-Austin, “Having time for play is essential for children to keep their weight under control.” (Bazar, Emily)

Cafeterias tend to serve high fat, high calorie meals. Most of the time when you look at a school cafeteria’s lunch menu, it’s like looking at a menu for a bad country buffet. Everything is creamed, fried, or doused in gravy. Many schools even provide French fries, which are usually the main course for most of the student’s lunches. I remember going into the cafeteria in high school; it was like the school had completely given up on the idea of serving anything with any real nutritional value. Everything was high fat, high calorie, low in fiber and would ultimately make the consumer crash within an hour of eating it. Still, the allure of French fries is irresistible to most people, especially when it’s offered so readily. Looking at Providence, my old high school’s lunch menu, it’s easy to see why the health of our nation’s children is in such peril. Providence High School has a Dominos pizza cart set up right in the middle of the cafeteria each day. The cafeteria workers know that it is almost worthless to attempt to compete with it. The “healthy” options are pitiful and unattractive, the salads consisting of a soggy tomato slice on top of a couple of wilted leaves of ice burg lettuce. The schools are unintentionally training kids to avoid healthy foods. The schools need to switch to an organic menu packed with nutrients, low in fat and free of red meats as well as provide vegetarian and vegan options. Most of all, they need to get rid of food options that will negatively affect a person’s health. Providing unhealthy options like French fries, cakes, and cookies creates temptation that most students will not resist.

Serving high quality foods in the cafeteria will ultimately result in better performance in the classrooms. Rather than crashing right after lunch, the lasting energy provided from a nutritious meal will fuel the students through their classes and help them to concentrate on their school work without becoming exhausted or distracted by hunger pains. Lotta Granholm is a neuroscientist at the Medical University of South Carolina who was interested in the effects of fats on the brain. After conducting memory tests on mice involving hydrogenated coconut oil and soybean oil in order to test the effects of trans fats on the brain, “Granholm suspects trans fat increases inflammation in the brain, which damages the proteins.” (spurlock 132)

Of course there is no hiding the fact that organic, healthy foods will be more expensive than the fried garbage that we are currently feeding to our kids. But there is also no denying the fact that the results would make the extra cash worth spending. We would be lazy and irresponsible not to put forth a little bit of effort to find proper funding in order to care for our children’s health. Most people would be happy to know that their tax dollars were being spent in a positive way for a change. Farm to School programs are one option that will benefit the students as well as the local community. “These programs connect schools with local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing health and nutrition education opportunities that will last a lifetime, and supporting local small farmers.” (FarmtoSchool.org) Programs like this would help to curb the cost of healthy, organic school lunches. The school lunch problem could be solved easily if the right people took the initiative to do so.

Gym class is another area where the schools are lacking in terms of promoting the health of their students. Gym teachers tend to force the kids to play games where the kids pick teams or that are simply no fun for the kids. Being picked last in gym class is something that can scar a kid emotionally and steer them away from sports and exercise for life. Instead of forcing kids to attend grueling gym classes where they play sports that usually don’t appeal to the kids; they should be required to join a team from a variety of sports, including non-team sports. Many more children would take interest in physical activity if they could choose from a wide variety and pick something that interests them. Schools could take advantage of their locations by engaging in local sports, like surfing lessons for schools that are near beaches and hiking for schools in the mountains. Classes for disabled children should also be made available. A disability should not hold someone back from being as healthy as they can be. If a child chooses a sport that appeals to him or her, it is more likely to be one that they keep up with throughout their lifetimes.

Not only are current physical education classes alienating to many, they are overall ineffective when it comes to providing an outlet for pent up energy. “…studies have shown that out of a typical gym period; only six minutes are spent being physically active! … the amount of physical education students get is actually very small—It can be measured in minutes per week.” (spurlock 127) Because of legislation like “No Child Left Behind” schools are being pressured to replace “free time” with more academics.

Some may argue that playground time, or time spent exercising while at school wastes time that could otherwise be spent learning and studying. Exercise is beneficial to the mind as well as the body. Exercise can help to improve one’s memory. “…exercise enhances the formation and survival of new nerve cells as well as the connections between nerve cells, which in turn improves long-term memory.” (Sejnowski, Terrence J.) Surely no teacher can argue that this would aide students in their schoolwork.

For the schools that require it as an elective, Home Economics classes should teach children skills that they can take home and use to educate their own families. They should teach kids how to cook healthy meals, instead of cakes and cookies as well as educate them about meal planning and nutritional information. If a child is introduced to the idea of replacing unhealthy ingredients with healthier ones, they will be more open minded about doing it on a regular basis rather than assuming that healthy and bland are synonymous. If the goal of home economics courses is to teach kids how to take care of themselves and their families, they should not exclude looking after the health of those people.

Health courses need to give as much focus, if not more, to teaching kids about nutrition and the dangers of obesity as they do to teaching them about drugs, sex, and alcohol. Parents and teachers tend to focus on more immediate health threats. A slice of pizza can look innocent next to a cigarette, but the negative repercussions of imbibing can cause plenty of life threatening health problems in a relatively short amount of time. Dr Wendy Wills, researcher in child and adolescent health at the University of HertfordshireIf, conducted interviews with teenagers aged 13 and 14, half of whom were overweight, and their parents. She said, “There was a sense that at 13 or 14 the last thing you need is to get hung up about your body and, as they saw it, pushed towards being diagnosed with an eating disorder.” (Duffy, Judith) Of course, the range of eating disorders is not limited to those that make you excessively thin; binge eating is a disorder as well. The results of binge eating can be extremely dangerous. “The major complications of binge eating disorder are the diseases that accompany obesity. These include diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, gallbladder disease, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.” (health.com) Health courses are intended to spread awareness of the things in our lives that can kill or harm us then there is no reason why certain foods should be left off the list. With all of the awful food options we are all faced with in daily life, kids need to be educated about how to make the proper decisions and the reasons why it is important to do so.

Some people say that it is the parent’s responsibility to ensure that their children are healthy. It is, partially. Parents do need to stop allowing their children to get hooked on such unhealthy foods, many of which have addictive qualities. If they are short on time, they need to work with their kids to make healthy meals that the children can prepare on their own. Even a single mother who works two jobs has no excuse for allowing her child to chow down on Twinkies instead of eating a nutritious meal. Parents should not stock the pantry with unhealthy snacks. The foods that are kept in the house are the ones that will be consumed by the parents and the children. Instead of filling up the kitchen with snack foods like snack cakes and other foods that are high in fat and empty calories, parents should provide fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grain breads. There are plenty of healthy meals that a child can prepare on his or her own these days. There are frozen vegetables that you can simply microwave and eat as well as a ton of other choices that will keep kids healthy and happy. The problem is that while these are not difficult changes to make, many parents will not keep up with these habits. If they haven’t already made some positive changes, then chances are that they are not going to start anytime soon. Besides, a parent can only monitor their child during the time that they are both home together, a large portion of the rest of the time is spent in the hands of the school system. I can’t imagine that many parents are thrilled about the fact that they have to leave their kids in the hands of a system that displays such irresponsibility each day. Unlike the individual households, the school systems can be more easily regulated and should be utilized to accomplish the goal of a healthier nation.

The school plays a very important role in the health of the children that attend. They need to spend more of the time that children spend there ensuring the kid’s health, and less of it worrying about skinned knees. Gym classes often do more harm than good when it comes to exposing kids to exercise by making it seem like a grueling activity. Requiring kids to join a team of their choice will make kids more open to the idea of exercise throughout their lifetimes. Health and home economics classes need to focus more on teaching kids how to keep themselves healthy and avoid obesity. Parents cannot always be counted on to do what is best for their child’s health, schools can be regulated, making it easier to control what sort of food options are available as well as ensuring that the children are getting proper exercise. With children spending a large proportion of their time during the school year at school, the time that they spend there should be spent promoting mental and physical health as much as possible.

Works Cited:

Bazar, Emily. “‘Not it!’ More schools ban games at recess” USA Today 6 June 2006. 15 November 2007 http://usatoday.com/news/health/2006-06-26-recess-bans_x.htm?imw=Y

“Binge Eating Disorder” Health.com National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases http://www.athealth.com/Consumer/disorders/Bingeeating.html

Birchum, Jana. Fatty Foods Under Attack in Texas Schools. 11 March 2004. http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://cache.viewimages.com/xc/3076153.jpg%3Fv%3D1%26c%3DViewImages%26k%3D2%26d%3D17A4AD9FDB9CF193B3EA2C03450C9486620E98D22B9322B05A5397277B4DC33E&imgrefurl=http://www.viewimages.com/Search.aspx%3Fmid%3D3076153%26epmid%3D2%26partner%3DGoogle&h=396&w=594&sz=48&hl=en&start=1&tbnid=u6G3J8JPjaVCfM:&tbnh=90&tbnw=135&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dchildhood%2Bobesity%2Bschool%2Blunch%2Bfrench%2Bfries%26gbv%3D2%26svnum%3D10%26hl%3Den

Duffy, Judith. “Parents Worry More About Drugs Than Obesity” The Sunday Herald 13 August 2006. 15 November 2007. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4156/is_20060813/ai_n16648762

“Farm to School” Farm to School.Org 2006 Occidental College

Obesity in America May 02, 2006. November 15, 2007 http://www.pmmedia.com/obesitypage1.htm

Sejnowski, Terrence J. “Exercise Improves Learning and Memory.” Howard Hughes Medical Institute. 9 November 1999. 15 November 2007. http://www.hhmi.org/news/sejnowski.html

Spurlock, Morgan. Don’t Eat This Book Berkley Books: New York, 2005