Reproduced with permission from Dr. Andrew Weil’s Self Healing newsletter
Americans’ waistlines are expanding as never before. Excess weight is the most common health problem facing our nation’s youngsters, and the number of teens considered overweight has almost tripled in 20 years. Alarmed, some school districts are sending letters home indicating when a child is overweight (or underweight). I think this controversial approach may help alert parents to a problem they fail to see.
With record numbers of us tipping the scales in the overweight range, problems previously seen in middle-age or beyond are now occurring in young people: There’s been nearly a tenfold increase in type 2 diabetes among children and teens since the 1980s, once so rare in youngsters the condition was called adult-onset diabetes. High blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels are placing overweight kids at greater risk for heart disease at earlier ages. While eating healthfully and increasing activity can reverse these trends, motivating youngsters to change their food habits and sedentary ways is a challenge. Complicating matters, more than 60 percent of US adults are overweight or obese, making them unqualified to serve as role models for a healthy lifestyle.
Shaping Minds and Bodies
I question whether schools are creating the best environment to promote sound minds and bodies. Vending machines stocked with soda, candy, and other junk food have no place in schools, and states need to ban them (some already have). Even though fast food is pervasive in our culture, schools should be a refuge from it. And it’s disheartening to see cash-strapped school districts sign pacts with the devil to allow soft-drink makers to peddle their sugary drinks, essentially selling out students’ health in exchange for lucrative contracts. At the least, parents can be instrumental in getting soda machines stocked only with water, milk (or soy milk), and fruit juice and in helping select “acceptable” foods for vending machines.
School lunches and cafeterias don’t receive high marks from kids either, and might not offer attractive enough alternatives to lure teenagers away from a “meal” of potato chips and a soft drink. Another culprit? TV advertising that influences a young person’s preferences for processed and fast foods. To encourage better lifelong eating practices, an innovative school foodservice program in Berkeley, California, lets students tend organic gardens, includes locally grown fresh produce in meals, and features natural foods on menus. Packing your own food may ensure a healthier meal, too.
In addition to extra calories, inactivity is also making kids fatter. I think it’s foolish for schools to promote a sound mind through academics, while neglecting the benefits of a fit body by shortchanging or eliminating physical education. Instead of emphasizing team sports, I’d rather see adolescents exposed to lifelong skills using fitness center equipment, yoga, dance, for example, that make an active lifestyle fun. At home, parents can set limits on screen time (TV, computers, and video games), while encouraging movement and play.
A complex issue, childhood obesity needs coordinated educational efforts and cooperation between the medical community, parents, and schools, as well as legislative action to mandate change. But a recent survey of health professionals found many don’t feel confident to treat childhood obesity or only do so when there’s a related medical problem. While I don’t consider obesity a disease, it is a condition with present and future health consequences that requires immediate action.