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Is obesity education for our kids a good idea?

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Is Obesity Education for our Kids a Good Idea?

by Sue Kemple, CHC, AADP

The Wellness Wordsmith

In the summer of 2009, our family was rudely awakened from 20+ years of treating our bodies very poorly.  My ex-husband, with ankles bloated to the size of softballs in spite of his blood pressure medications, kicked things off by suffering a nearly fatal heart attack at the age of 46.  His obese ex-wife (that would be me) was suffering from high cholesterol, uncomfortable chest pressure, unrelenting heartburn, and aches in her left arm and jaw that indicated the beginnings of heart disease.  Our older son was overweight and had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and blood in his urine at the age of fourteen.

All this was the result of eating mostly processed foods and maintaining a sedentary lifestyle.

In fact, we were all headed for a train wreck.  The ex-husband had the emergency heart surgery and went on medications, while Mom decided that would not be the course for her and the children.  She discovered Dr. Joel Fuhrman and the wisdom of consuming a plant-based diet, and she unilaterally changed the way her family would eat.

James, the twelve year old, was the only one without some kind of seemingly life-threatening diagnosed condition, and he had only reluctantly gotten off the wreck of the hamburger and pizza train and onto what he called the “hippie bus” filled with fruits and vegetables. As he sat at the dinner table one night that first week picking at the kale on his plate, he said, “I don’t know why I have to eat like this.  I don’t have high blood pressure.  I don’t have high cholesterol.  I didn’t have a heart attack.”

I pointed my fork at him and said the sort of thing only a loving mother could get away with: “Yeah kid, but you’re fat.  And if you don’t make a change now, you’ll be right there with us in no time.”

So you can imagine my delight when a few months later, my newly slim boy was eating a salad for lunch and remarked, “You know, this is just a habit now.  And I feel better eating this way.”

A routine, a lifestyle, and a noticeable change in how he felt are what moved my child from obesity and looming disease to the picture of health.  I don’t know that any healthful living class in school would have made a difference, and if their mom hadn’t clearly seen the health disaster unfolding and made wholesale changes in the kitchen, we might all be taking pharmaceutical drugs by now.

But most kids don’t have the benefit of a mom who was scared to death enough to make such radical changes in the way her family eats.  And so last week, in an attempt to stem the tide of childhood obesity, the American Medical Association publicly got behind an effort to require teaching the “causes, consequences, and prevention” of obesity in our public schools.

I’ve been saying for a long time that our schools should focus a little less on teaching things that few of us will need to know for a long and happy life (like algebra) and more on those things that apply to everyone, such as personal finance, maintaining relationships, and physical fitness.  You might think that as a health coach with a professional background in education, I’d be excited to know that such
an influential organization is taking a stand on such an important issue.

The truth is, I’m pretty skeptical.  (Always the contrarian, I know.)

Don’t get me wrong, the intentions here are good.  But if our current health education paradigm is any indication, this could cause more harm than healing.  A few weeks ago, James (now fifteen) came home from school to tell me that his healthy living teacher informed his class that the healthiest breakfast one could buy outside the home is an Egg McMuffin.  Why?  Because it’s only 350 calories.

If this is the kind of information we can expect to be delivered in an obesity education program, it will do for our kids what the USDA Food Pyramid has done for our nation the past twenty years.  Which is pretty much make things worse.

Here are the flaws I see from the start:

  • Because our schools receive government funding, they will likely continue to base their healthy eating instruction on the USDA
    Food Pyramid/Plate.  At least here in North Carolina, they do.  The curriculum that was adopted in 2006 is the one still in force today.  It encourages students to consume things like low fat dairy, processed cereals and animal products on a daily basis.  (For a little more information about what’s wrong with the USDA’s diet, click here.)  We have a serious instructional design flaw right out of the gate when we start with the USDA’s nutritional guidelines.
  • Schools are notorious for serving students nutritionally substandard fare for breakfast and lunch.  Unless an obesity education program is introduced alongside meal programs designed to prevent obesity, it won’t mean a thing.  You can’t tell students not to eat foods high in fat, calories and sugar, and then feed them chocolate milk at lunch.
  • I doubt the obesity education initiative includes any efforts to support our teachers in living a healthy lifestyle, and this is absolutely key.  Everything about the teaching profession in the 21st century conspires against healthy living.  Our teachers are under tremendous stress with overloaded classrooms, state and federal mandates, too few bathroom breaks, lack of appreciation, low pay… so many of them rely on caffeine and sugar to get through the day, and the students see this clearly.  If we don’t support our teachers in healthy living and encourage them to set the example, how can we expect our kids will get the message?
  • And finally – with few exceptions, medical doctors are not experts on the causes and prevention of obesity.  They are the experts on the consequences, and they treat those consequences every day – heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer.  While the AMA’s concern is warranted and admirable, obesity prevention begins with sound nutrition.  As a rule, and through no fault of their own, doctors are not trained in nutrition.  If we should have any professionals out there in the schools helping guide our teachers and our students away from obesity and into healthy lifestyles, it should be the people trained for it – nutritionists and health coaches.

Generally speaking, I don’t believe in criticizing an initiative without proposing solutions to improve it.  And so, here are just a few thoughts about what might actually make a real difference in our schools:

  • In every public school in the nation, employ a few full-time health coaches and teachers who truly understand the undeniable benefits of whole foods nutrition.
  • In each school, have at least one coach whose sole responsibility is to support faculty members in dealing with stress, eating well, and exercising more, both for their own well-being and so they can genuinely walk the talk for their students.
  • Have a few other coaches on hand to work with the students AND their parents to guide them toward affordable healthy eating.  Because frankly, you can give kids all the information in the world, but if the pantry at home is filled with cheap processed foodstuff, you’ll just set them up to feel like they are destined for failure.
  • Have these nutritionists and coaches work with curriculum leaders to design a course of study (and corresponding plan of action) for each district that meets the unique socioeconomic needs of its community, because one national standard surely will not fit all.
  • Even though public schools receive federal funds, they need to ditch the USDA dietary recommendations and base their efforts on a way of eating that is proven to keep people slim and healthy.
  • You have to practice what you preach or it just won’t work!  Get rid of school vending machines (or at least replace them with those that offer somewhat less unhealthy options) and revamp the school lunch programs.  Use locally grown fresh foods instead of mass produced processed foods.  Plant organic gardens on every school campus that is capable of having one, and give the students ownership of them.  Instead of just telling kids what they should do, get them involved from the moment you literally plant the seeds, and watch them get on board.
  • Invest in facilities and equipment that encourage activity.  Don’t make students sit in desks all day long.  Get them out walking, give teachers the freedom to teach in kinesthetic ways.  Make sure there is adequate time during the day for kids to move, and encourage fun – not tedious or stressful – ways to get them moving.  Sports, walking clubs, activities that they may well take into their adult lives, like tennis or Zumba.  Meet the kids where they are and guide them toward activities they’ll continue in their adult lives.
  • Have any involvement by physicians in such an effort be led by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.  These
    medical doctors are the exceptions to the rule, the ones who’ve done the research and have the evidence to demonstrate that food should be our medicine.

You may be wondering where I propose we find the funding to make all this happen. 

Our schools spend billions – BILLIONS – of dollars on standardized testing that does absolutely nothing to improve education, and in fact has weakened the quality of education considerably.  Just a fraction of that money would easily cover the costs involved with greatly improving the health of the next generation.  Think about it… what good will it do for our kids to be able to pass multiple choice math tests if they are headed for shortened life-spans filled with illness and disease?  In the end, what is really more important?

We do have a tremendous opportunity before us to develop programs that can really help our kids reverse the train wreck of our current obesity trend.  But if we don’t make it the serious priority it needs to be through a comprehensive program that does more than just teach from a textbook, it won’t have the kind of impact that will really make a difference.  Classes and lessons alone won’t do
it.  Radical shifts in lifestyle and approach will.

I just hope that someone out there in authority becomes as scared to death for all our children as I once was for my own.

This post is reprinted with the permission of Sue Kemple, author.  The Wellness Wordsmith owns the copyright to this material.


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