Weight of the Nation

Things are crazy busy this week. Like CRAZY. I have two reports to write not to mention I am still (STILL?!) feeling sick. So I don’t have a ton of time to put together some posts until Thursday or Friday, but I wanted to get a conversation started today– and will follow up in other posts–on a pressing issue that runners or all people who are active should be talking about. That is, the obesity epidemic in America.

1985 Obesity Prevalence

2011 Obesity Prevalence 

The numbers are scary, especially as they pertain to childhood obesity. As a policy analyst in the recent HBO documentary Weight of the Nation put it, “there is some regional variation but it is all different degrees of terrible. The levels are so high everywhere that every state has to pay attention to this issue, the health care costs not to mention the human burden are very high in every corner of this country.”

The most frustrating (but also possibly the best news) is that obesity is preventible. It just takes greater education, changes in eating culture, and a shift away from sedentary lifestyles. These are things that can be taught and learned (preferably at an early age). What’s it going to take? Well for one thing, a focus on the problem from the public policy standpoint. We need to stop cutting back on recess and physical fitness in schools and change what students are eating during lunch (I can tell you from personal experience as a former high school history teacher that the lunch options at most places are awful: pizza, fries, hamburgers, and maybe if kids are lucky they’ll pick up an apple).

A big part of the problem as it relates to what kids are eating in schools is that there is, according to the New York Times, “an increasingly cozy alliance between companies that manufacture processed foods and companies that serve the meals” and that these companies are “making students — a captive market — fat and sick while pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.” Those fighting against these huge companies like Aramark or Sodexo face an uphill battle. According to the article, Donna D. Walsh, a former school board president in Westchester County, N.Y. said she “worked to get Aramark to stop deep-frying food and to open a salad bar. But after a new superintendent came in, the company went back to profit-driven menus of pizza and bagels.”

Fried food and more fried food. Oh and a sugar laden Hawaiian Punch on the side

If you haven’t checked it out already, the blog Fed Up With Lunch documents the school lunches and issues related to nutrition in schools. It began  with an anonymous teacher (“Mrs. Q”) who in 2010 documented her experience eating lunch with the students. She took pictures and recorded what was eaten every day and documented the awful choices students have for lunch.

Recently, a couple of middle school students in Minnesota wrote an op-ed (with no doubt help from their teachers or parents) to the Minneapolis Star Tribune about how they only get 10-11 minutes for lunch. You can read the piece here. They have no time and have to scarf down their (probably unhealthy) lunches. In the op-ed the two students astutely observe: “Having to rush to eat is part of the reason for the obesity epidemic, eating disorders, indigestion and kids not doing well in school. There is research that proves all of these points. Kids just need more time to eat at school.”  Not only did they explain the consequences of having such a short lunch period, but they also laid out some actual solutions  In reaction to the piece, the superintendent joined the sixth grade at the school for lunch and timed it herself. She found she had 11 minutes to eat.

Why am I bringing this all up now? Well it’s something I think and worry about a great deal. Why have I been able to make healthy eating and fitness a habit but so many others have not? Was it my parents? My school experiences? Or is it just something I have stumbled upon myself? (p.s. it is most likely due to my parents, who fed me healthy low-fat meals full of different vegetables growing up, which I sometimes complained about at the time but obviously it was important). I’ve also been watching the HBO documentary Weight of the Nation, which is yet another call to action for our country to do something before health care costs, as well as the human toll, really skyrocket in the next decade.

The documentary comes in 4 parts, which you can watch online here.

I have much more to say on this issue, especially concerning the physical fitness (or lack there of) of students in schools. As a teacher, I’ve sat by and watched as school districts have cut back on physical education and recess even though our kids are getting more and more unhealthy.

What are your general thoughts on the obesity epidemic? 

Have you seen parts of the HBO documentary Weight of the Nation? 

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10 Responses to Weight of the Nation

  1. Carina says:

    It’s a tough issue. I’m sure more recess or physical activity time would either mean longer school days (which would mean needing to pay teachers more), or less time on academics (which are obviously important and another area where the country is getting into trouble). Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to want to fund anything. In my mind, it’s more of a parental issue, encouraging activity and healthy meals, but at the same time, it’s hard to demand that of parents who work long hours just to support a family — it’s hard to take the kids for a walk when you get home at 7 or 8 and need to prepare dinner, check homework, and get the kids to bed, and there aren’t many inexpensive healthy quick meals (but that may go back to corn subsidies, etc., which is an entire issue in and of itself). Lots of tough questions and no obvious solutions.

    • I totally agree that it is a no-win situation. We need to focus on academics but if children (who grow up to be adults) aren’t healthy, none of that other stuff will really matter. I’m saying this and I’m even in the education field. Research on the importance of academic preparation is all I do and yet I can’t help but feel that it’s about priorities and basic health first. At some points schools need to step in and do the teaching because it’s just not happening at home. Just like how we teach kids how to drive…

  2. kaitwatts says:

    I am surprised by that map. I thought that it would be slightly more diverse in color. When I first started teaching in Colorado 7 years ago, my school had just won an award for the healthiest school lunch in the nation. Within a couple of years, they had made a deal with Dominoes and were back to selling pizza and high fructose side dishes. Budget cuts. When the choice is school lunch, or textbooks and teachers. School lunches go first. Although, I was at a high school and the kids could leave for lunch. If they didn’t get their fill of salt and fat at the lunch they went to the nearest fast food place. It’s what they know. Great post!

    • Thanks! I agree that it’s so hard because students will likely choose unhealthy choices anyways. But perhaps if they had more choices they would make slightly more healthy choices? I read yesterday that k-12 students in California eat 150 less calories per day than students in the rest of the country. It’s because the schools have banned the sale of soda and although 150 calories a day doesn’t seem like much, over a year it can amount to 15 pounds! You raise such good points!!

  3. katiemoves says:

    Ah!!! This map made me absolutely cringe…as a health and physical education teacher- i saw/see way too many overweight, lazy kids and it’s really sad. One thing is that it starts at home- and most of those kids who were overweight or obese had overweight and obese parents. And yes- the school lunches are awful…and the kids who had theirs packed weren’t much better. The next thing that is doing nothing to help these kids (at least in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that I can account for) is the major budget cuts by our governors. They’ve cut billions of dollars from the public school budget and have made the standards for standardized testing so ridiculous- these kids don’t stand a chance. they have enormous amounts of time spent reading and writing IN A DESK all day long. The one elementary school i worked at made students stay in for recess and read a book… the poor kids READ ALL DAY long! They didn’t even have time to relax and go outside and play…. ugh i could go on and on but this is all so frustrating! Most of the time classes like physical education and health are cut out just so they can fit in more math and reading. great post claire!

  4. it is so sad to see how the obesity rates have changed so drastically! it’s actually scary. i haven’t seen the weight of the nation but i reallyyy want to. i feel like there needs to be more education on nutrition. i was with my friends the other day and they wanted some help with their eating. so i gave them a mini nutrition plan and they didn’t know so much! it was pretty basic things but i feel like if they learned this stuff sooner rather than later, than it would help them in the long run

    • I know! Nutrition is not something that schools really teach but I think they need to. At some point when a problem gets big enough schools–or the government–needs to step in. We teach people how to drive. We add fluoride to the water to help everyone’s teeth. It’s time we teach nutrition and healthy living habits and not just assume that its going to happen at home because it’s not.

  5. Idlehide says:

    Wow, that is incredibly sad. What a huge difference. Wow!

  6. That is really sad and incredibly frustrating. I think adding to the cause is a fear that instilled in some children NOT to work out. I have asthma, and growing up, everyone was always questioning my mom’s decision to let me swim and run. They all thought it would make my asthma worse. Meanwhile today, my asthma problems are virtually non-existent, and my cousin that’s about the same age still carries his inhaler. Granted there are some people that will have worse symptoms from certain levels of physical activity, but in general, i think we need to stop thinking that everyone is too fragile to go out and walk/jog for 5 minutes.

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