By Janet Helm, MS, RD
The stats on obesity keep getting worse. A new study released this week predicts that obesity among Americans may grow from about a third of the population to at least 44% in every state. Even scarier, the obesity rates in 13 states will likely reach 60%, according to the report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Escalating obesity rates will translate to a dramatic increase in preventable diseases – from type 2 diabetes and arthritis to heart disease – along with soaring healthcare costs. Estimates on the cost of obesity-related illnesses vary from $147 billion a year to $210 billion a year. Those costs would increase by $48 billion to $66 billion by 2030 if obesity rates climb as projected, the new analysis predicts.
This means we need lots of innovative solutions to be sure these stats don’t become a reality in the future. It means lots of people need to come together to help adults and children make changes – inspiring healthier food choices and increasing physical activity.
I’m convinced after attending the GENYOUth Foundation Nutrition and Physical Activity Summit in Washington, DC this week that one powerful place to start is in our schools. This conference brought together leaders from the private and public sectors to explore innovative solutions to help address childhood obesity, especially in the school environment.
“We can’t accept this paradox of obesity and poor nutrition among youth as the new normal, we must change it,” said Alexis Glick, CEO of the GENYOUth Foundation, a non-profit group focused on improving nutrition and increasing physical activity in schools. “While many are familiar with the long-term health effects poor nutrition and physical activity have on a child, there’s also a connection to a child’s ability to learn. School breakfast and time for physical activity are often overlooked and underutilized, and we believe these are areas where improvement can be made to help schools across the country.”
At the conference, we heard experts review the science on the impact of breakfast. The evidence is clear: Kids who regularly eat breakfast are not only leaner, but they have better quality diets that are richer in nutrients and even do better in school. Studies show that students who eat breakfast have better math scores and fewer emotional and behavioral problems at school.
Trouble is, less than half of all kids eat breakfast each day. That’s why schools are trying to introduce more school breakfast programs so kids can get the nourishment they need in the morning to learn. They’re doing everything from grab and go breakfasts when kids get off the bus to serving breakfast in the classroom.
Salad bars are also gaining popularity – thanks to the Let’s Move! Salad Bars 2 School program that is helping drive school cafeteria changes to increase children’s fruit and vegetable consumption. Chef Sam Kass, who heads up the Healthy Food Initiatives for the White House, spoke at the conference to talk about some of the Let’s Move! success stories in schools.
We also heard about innovative new programs to promote physical activity in schools – at a time when fewer than 8% of schools offer daily physical education. Some schools, for instance, are integrating movement into class lessons so kids are increasing their activity when they’re studying other subjects. It’s about changing the culture, said John Skretta, a superintendent of schools in Nebraska, who participated in a panel discussion on overcoming hurdles to improve school-based nutrition and physical activity programs. “The earlier we start, the earlier these values are internalized,” he said.
Perhaps my biggest takeaway from the Summit was the importance of giving youth a voice. We heard from students from around the country who are advocating for change within their schools. We need to bring kids to the table when we’re looking for solutions. We need to listen to kids and help empower them to spread the word. We may look at childhood obesity as a “problem,” but our biggest solution may be the children themselves.