Sunday, November 8, 2015

Baby Steps: The Childhood Obesity Smackdown

It doesn't take a scientist to tell you that there are a lot of over-weight kids out there. Nor do you need a laundry list of the less-than-desirable outcomes for these kids, both physical and mental, awaiting them in the future, or that they are experiencing right now, if something isn't done. 

As for the causes, there are almost too many boogie men to point the finger at: a prevalence of cheap but unhealthy foods and sugary drinks that all too often target children, lack of access to exercise, and lack of knowledge about health and diet from the adults in their lives, to name a few.

Still part of the problem, McDonalds

But the good news is, there is actually some good news. Although overall obesity rates remain high, and prevalence among 2-19 year olds and adults in the United States has not changed significantly between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012, for very young children, however, data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) do show a decline in obesity prevalence in the 2 to 5 year old age group from nearly 14 percent in 2003-2004, to just over 12 percent in 2009-2010, to just over 8 percent in 2011-2012.

Below, childhood obesity by state.

Good on ya, Oregon, New Mexico, Kentucky, West Virginia, Missouri, Indiana,
New York and New Jersey! Not so good on ya, a lot of other states.

Clearly, though there is still much work to do, these states that have seen their childhood obesity rates among their 2 to 5 year olds fall may have something to offer in terms of how they got those numbers down.

On the national level, a way to help kids have more and better options to healthy food has come through the new mandates set for the National School Lunch Program. It requires every school student to have at least one choice of fruit and one vegetable per school-supplied meal. So, that's a "top down" approach, and laudable as far as it goes. But, much like how leading a horse to water doesn't necessarily mean it will drink, just giving kids access to fruits and veggies doesn't mean they will eat them, as any parent knows. And as frustrating as it can sometimes be trying to get your own kids to eat right, imagine that same difficulty on a national scale! 

This article, however, describes a study conducted in 2011 that lead to a solution to the problem that borders on the zen-like in its simplicity. Want kids to stop throwing away their fruits and veggies and eat them? Reschedule recess.

Emphasis mine.
“Recess is often held after lunch so children hurry to “finish” so that they can go play—this results in wasted fruits and vegetables,” explains co-author David Just, PhD of Cornell University, “However, we found that if recess is held before lunch, students come to lunch with healthy appetites and less urgency and are more likely to eat their fruits and vegetables.” 
... After analyzing a total of 22,939 observations, the researchers concluded that in the schools that switched recess to before lunch children ate 54% more fruits and vegetables. There was also a 45% increase in those eating at least one serving of fruits and vegetables. During the same time period consumption of fruits and vegetables actually decreased in the schools that didn’t switch.

Not only did this switch help the kids, but it saved the school districts money by decreasing food waste, offsetting the higher cost of offering healthier food choices. 

And that helps everybody.

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