Obesity: a problem for Worcester’s kids – and the entire nation

By John Monfredo, Worcester School Committee member

Schools must work on having a balance between wellness and academics as we address the needs of our children. With so much emphasis on MCAS scores, wellness has taken a back seat to achievement. The question is: why can’t we do both – academics and wellness? “If our children aren’t healthy, their learning suffers, and research shows that children who eat high sugar, high fat meals may have poorer cognitive skills, higher anxiety levels, and problems with hyperactivity,” stated Jerry Newberry in an article in the NEA magazine.

Let’s look at a health issue that is affecting our children – obesity. For more than four decades, obesity rates in the United States have more than quadrupled among children ages 6 to 11 years, more than tripled among adolescents ages 12 to 19 years and more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5 years, according to the Committee on Prevention of Obesity in Children and Youth. Today, almost one third of the children in this country are either overweight or obese. The percentage of young people who are overweight has tripled over the last 25 years. Preventing obesity during childhood is critical because habits formed during childhood and adolescence frequently persist into adulthood.

Are you concerned yet? Research done by Freeman, Srinivasan and Berenson on this topic showed that unhealthy eating habits, inactivity and obesity lead to heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes and are responsible for two-thirds of the deaths in the United States. One quarter of children ages 5 to 10 years show early warning signs for heart disease, such as elevated blood cholesterol or high blood pressure.

Type 2 diabetes can no longer be called “adult onset” diabetes because of the rising rates in children. In a study conducted in Cincinnati, the incidence of Type 2 diabetes in adolescents increased ten-fold between 1982 and 1994, and it continues to rise even more into the next decade. Furthermore, according to the report of the New England Journal of Medicine, today’s youth may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

Other research statistics show that three out of four American high school students do not eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day (Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance), and three out of four children consume more saturated fat than is recommended.
In addition, soft drink consumption has doubled over the last 30 years. Thus, with the additional serving of soft drinks (soda, juice drinks, etc.) consumed each day, the odds that a child will become obese increases by 60%. Time has changed eating habits. In the ‘70s and ‘80s there was more consumption of milk, while now there is consumption of twice as much soda as milk.

“Epidemic is absolutely the correct word for what we’re seeing,” said David Lugwig, M.D. director of the obesity program and the Children’s Optimal Weight for Life program at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Besides the danger of a number of diseases mentioned there are the emotional downsides: overweight children who can’t play sports, can barely fit in their chairs at school, and are the children who are bullied and ostracized by their peers. Thus, low self esteem and depression can undermine children’s learning, behavior and well being.

One may ask: how did this situation get out of hand? Experts say that there are several factors. Genetics certainly plays a role along with the lowering of physical activity, and the fact that fewer children sit down to a family dinner with a parent. So in many cases processed and prepackaged foods are found on the table. In addition, our children are getting less physical activity at home and at school. Video games have replaced the playground as children’s favorite past time, and many school districts, due to budget cuts, have eliminated or cut back on physical education.

To stem the tide, Congress passed a law in 2004 requiring districts that participate in the national lunch program to develop local wellness policies. The implementation and evaluation of such policies began in 2006-2007 school year. In addition, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Department of Public Health has been pro-active in working with school systems across the state. They have started Healthy Choices programs in many of the middle schools. The program has four main components:

1. Integration of nutrition and physical activities into core subjects by using the Planet health curriculum.

2. School policy changes based on an assessment of the school’s nutrition and physical activity environment.

3. Before and after school nutrition and physical activity programs.

4. School wide campaign to promote 5-2-1 message – Eat 5 or more fruits and vegetables each day; watch less than two hours of television each day; and get at least one hour of physical activity each day.

In addition, the state has mandated Body Mass Index testing as part of the students’ growth screening to all school districts. The screening takes place grade in 1, 4, 7 and 10. BMI is a statistical measurement which compares a person’s weight and height. It is widely used as a diagnostic tool to identify weight problems. Parents can contact the school nurse about the screening and acquire additional information.

This law is a start and on the local level school districts need to be more pro-active with its Wellness committee. The one positive thing coming out of the policy in Worcester is that people are talking to each other about the problem affecting our children. Staff representing physical education, nursing, health and food service are now sitting at the table with parent representatives and working together.

What we need is a whole-school-district approach to tackle this epidemic. As adults we need to make responsible decisions for our students when it comes to food, physical education and health. However, districts across the country include Worcester have limited resources as they attempt to address the problem. The Worcester Public Schools does have a Wellness policy but it’s three years old and needs to be updated.

One part of the policy states, “ The Worcester Public Schools will work with our existing health advisory council to develop, implement, monitor, review and as necessary, revise school health, nutrition and physical activity polices. The advisory council will also serve as a resource to school sites for implementing these policies.” That one statement alone needs to be implemented for this council needs to make the necessary recommendations, review what’s happening in the area of physical activities, nutrition and make the necessary changes. More “teeth” into the policy will show the importance of Wellness and must be addressed at the table and be implemented.

The Worcester Public Schools are addressing this problem and have had pockets of success as we attempt to tackle obesity. Dr. Beverly Nazarian, MD, and a consultant to the Worcester Public Schools, had conducted a School Health: Prevention Overweight Children in the Worcester Public Schools study. The position paper contained many good suggestions.

In addition, there are programs taking place in some schools, including “Kids on the Go” with the YMCA, Health Ambassador programs, a health club at Doherty High School, student health councils, healthy choices curriculum on the middle school level, mileage walking club, fit math and dance exercise programs after school. The health teachers in Worcester continue to teach about the importance of eating healthy foods. The Wellness Committee has also surveyed the principals in Worcester to see what they are doing at their school and will use that information to move forward on this issue with recommendations this fall.

Schools need to deal with wellness at PTO meetings, on the web, and send information to the homes with each report card. Parents, before getting those ideas from the school system here are some for you to consider (from the the BlueCross website):

• Eat breakfast – It is the most important meal of the day. By skipping breakfast, you’re setting your child up to be tired and hungry throughout the day.
• Drink water – Try to have your child drink at least 4 large glasses of water each day and more if they’re very active.
• Can the sodas – A 12 ounce can of regular soda has least TEN teaspoons of sugar in it. Diet soda still contains artificial ingredients as well as caffeine.
• Downsize, not supersize – How much you eat is just as important as what you eat.
• Snack attack – instead of snack cakes, candy bars or chips, try dried fruit, low fat yogurt, air-popped popcorn, fruit, and unsalted roasted nuts. Frozen juice bars (100% juice) make healthy alternatives to high-fat snacks and are refreshing on a hot summer day.
• Filling, fantastic fiber – Fiber is filling, helps improve digestion, and provides long-term energy. Food rich in fiber include bran cereals, fresh and dried fruits, broccoli, corn, whole grain breads, brown rice, lentils, and air-popped popcorn.
• Calcium for strong bones – Aim for 3 to 4 servings/day. Foods rich in calcium include skim milk, low fat yogurt or cheese, cottage cheese, broccoli, spinach, calcium-fortified orange juice.
• Lean protein – Lean protein foods should be the main source of protein in your diet. These foods include skinless chicken or turkey breast, fish, shellfish, ham, lean red meats, egg whites, low fat milk, low fat yogurt, and low fat cheese.
• Fast foods are fat foods – If you are eating out, make healthier choices such as; bring home a veggie pizza, small plain hamburger, or a grilled chicken sandwich.
• Variety is valuable – Offering your children a variety of foods and encourage them o try new things.
• Don’t diet – eat modest portions of a variety of foods, including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Parents, did you know …

Your child watches approximately 40,000 TV ads per year – mostly for fast food and sweetened cereal. On an average, children in the United States will spend more time in front of the television ( 1.023 hours) than in school ( 900 hours). More than 1-2 hours of watching TV each day has been associated with decreasing interest in school and lower academic scores. In addition, the more children watch TV, the more they will SNACK between meals and eat the JUNK food seen on TV.

So the question remains, what can parents do? First, doctors recommend limiting the TV, video, and computers to no more than two hours a day. They also suggest that you keep the TV off during meals, and hide the remote. Do not have a TV in your child’s room and if so remove it. Try to promote TV free days and don’t worry if your child says they are bored; boredom passes and turns to creativity. No one ever said that parenting was going to be easy!

As childhood obesity rates soar, our children are sitting in front of their computers and TV rather than playing outside. Therefore, physical health isn’t the only thing at sake. According to a study by the California Department of Education, children’s fitness levels may affect their performance in school. The study found that increased amounts of physical fitness translated into higher academic achievement. The research has led doctors to surmise that exercise may encourage new – brain cell growth. A workout for your body also is a workout for your mind. Helping your child get in shape, for they may bring home higher test scores and better grades and that will be a bonus for the war against obesity.

We need to get the community as a whole involved in the awareness of this problem and work on developing a health community. However, parents need to be the driving force in addressing this problem for you know your child better than anyone. Therefore, please work with the school and the many agencies in Worcester on helping control this epidemic. The health of your child is at stake.

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