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Child Nutrition Bill Provides Essential Ingredients for Nutritious School Meals
Being overweight is commonplace in our society, and it is damaging the health of our children who eat more and exercise less. They have grown so large that their clothes have outgrown their age-appropriate clothes, and sometimes they can’t even sit comfortably in classroom chairs. Childhood obesity is now listed as one of America’s most prominent health problems, and we must address it quickly, or we risk failing to reverse this dangerous trend.
As a cardiologist, I often see the medical consequences of obesity. More and more young people now need to take daily pills to reduce the increasing risk of vascular disease caused by obesity. Medications and diagnostics that used to be reserved for adults are now being prescribed to younger and younger children. The sharp rise in risk associated with high blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and “so-called” adult-onset (type 2) diabetes is translating into heart disease at a younger age. What’s more, the mental and emotional problems associated with obesity impair many children’s “joy of life” and reduce their ability to learn and do well in school.
The statistics are frightening. Childhood obesity rates have more than quadrupled in the past 30 years, from 4 percent to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Obesity-related diseases cost nearly $168.4 billion a year, or 16.5 percent of national health care spending—a price that is getting higher and higher than the nation can afford. Fewer children are participating in simple physical activities such as swimming, cycling or even walking short distances. Sedentary behavior combined with access to high-calorie foods and drinks in school cafeterias and vending machines only exacerbates the problem.
A new study by University of Illinois researchers finds that calorie-rich beverages, especially high-fat milk, remain common in schools. That’s in stark contrast to the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations, which urge elementary schools to offer only water, 100% fruit juice in 4-ounce servings and 1% nonfat dairy on top of school meal plans. Best of all, students have easy access to high-calorie beverages in an environment where they spend most of their day. More attention must be paid to removing sugary drinks from schools and teaching young people how to eat right and stay active.
We’re making progress thanks to a landmark agreement between the beverage industry and the Coalition for a Healthy Generation, a nonprofit founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation. Between the 2004-05 school year and the first half of the 2009-10 school year, total beverage calories shipped to schools decreased by 88%. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s only one step. Congress now has an opportunity to strengthen standards in most schools across the country.
Comprehensive nutrition education and increased opportunities for physical activity in schools have been shown to be successful in preventing and reducing obesity. But to create a healthy and productive future for our children, our nation’s leaders must step up and pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The legislation has been approved by the U.S. Senate and is currently awaiting a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. The measure will help fight childhood obesity by improving the nutritional quality of school meals, removing junk food and high-calorie drinks from vending machines and strengthening school health policies.
Not only do these regulations help promote health in children, but research shows that children who are introduced to healthy foods and physical activity early in life are more likely to adopt healthy behaviors as adults. Healthy, active kids also learn more effectively and achieve more academically.
The hope of today’s youth is in our hands, and we must come together to ensure the swift passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The U.S. Senate has already passed the measure, giving the U.S. House of Representatives a chance to bring the bill to the president when Congress resumes this month. As children continue to gain alarming levels of weight, let’s take steps that will help them get back in shape and make the school environment a place that promotes healthy lifestyles through physical and academic rewards.
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