From Michael J. Peters, MD
As medical director of Bariatric Surgery for Christiana Care Health System in Delaware, I am constantly surrounded with the perils of obesity. For 10 years I have performed weight loss surgical procedures, such as gastric bypass, LAP-BAND and gastric sleeve surgery, on severely overweight adults. The results have been incredible. My patients experience dramatic improvements in their overall health and well-being. Their improvement in mobility and self-esteem are very gratifying to see.
Today, however, adults are not the only ones suffering from our nationwide obesity epidemic. Childhood obesity rates are on the rise. Nearly one-third of children and teenagers aged 2 to 19 are obese or overweight. This month is the first-ever National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Declared by Congress, this month is an opportunity for national, state and city leaders, as well as individuals, to focus on the prevention of obesity among our nation’s youth.
Lately, prevention measures have been focusing on the nutrition programs in schools. Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution, for example, was a huge ratings success and even won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program. The show focused on improving school lunches in one small town in West Virginia. Over 600,000 people signed his petition. First Lady Michelle Obama has helped pioneer legislation that would create new standards for food in schools, including vending machine items.
The USDA already controls the contents of school lunches; food with minimal nutritional value, such as soda, is banned. It does not, however, control food sold in on-campus stores or in vending machines. Typical vending machine snacks are loaded with sugar. Students who consume these snacks experience extreme spikes in their blood sugar. Briefly, awareness and concentration may improve from the sugar rush, but as insulin production combats the spike, students will experience intense crashes. Learning can suffer. I understand that money generated from vending machines is not insignificant. With the current state of the economy causing massive cuts in education, the last thing I want to suggest is killing a lucrative revenue stream. However, a vending machine does not need to be outfitted with caffeine- and sugar-filled sodas, energy drinks and candy. There are healthy snacks available to stock these machines without sacrificing profit margin. As a member of the MSD School Health Committee, I am committed to seeing healthier options in our schools.
But schools cannot be held completely responsible for the growing childhood obesity epidemic. Studies that follow weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) of children find significant increases during the summer months. During vacation, activity decreases and eating habits go unsupervised by parents. What we are unfortunately learning is that the quality of nutrition at home is actually not that good. Fast food is a major culprit. Nearly thirty percent of children aged 4 to 19 eat fast food every day. This type of eating behavior translates to six additional pounds of weight per year per child. Six pounds may not seem alarming, but if you consider a 5-year-old who eats fast food every day, by age 15 he will be 60 pounds overweight. In fact, as little as 100 extra calories a day can add 10 pounds over the course of a year.
In a perfect world, schools and parents would work together on behalf of the children. Schools can play a role in educating not only kids but also their parents about the importance of proper nutrition. Sending suggested menus home with kids, reporting BMI trends and holding educational sessions are just some options. Parents can take an active role in their children’s health by packing healthy lunches, discouraging junk food and cooking homemade meals as often as possible. I would like nothing more than to see more funding be made available for education and counseling regarding the dangers of obesity. This is truly a pandemic with no signs of slowing down. National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month is an excellent opportunity for us to take notice and work toward a solution.