Team up to tackle childhood obesity

08/09/2011
Fitness and Nutrition
Tammy Beasley, MS, RD, CSSD

Nearly one out of every three children in today’s classrooms is overweight or obese. Despite advances in agriculture and medicine, our children may be the first generation with a shorter life span than their parents — and many of their teachers. These statistics are sobering, but future projections can change if school administrators and teachers team up with parents and health organizations to tackle childhood obesity together. Small steps can make big changes in our children’s health and future, and these steps begin with nutrient-rich foods and daily play time.

The first step to score against childhood obesity is to make every calorie count. Nutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fat-free or low-fat dairy foods offer more than just calories for growing bodies. These foods are power packed with vitamins and minerals with relatively few calories. According to the US Department of Agriculture, only two percent of school aged children consume the recommended daily number of servings from all major food groups.
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Another way to look at this fact: nine out of 10 children do not eat enough whole grains, fruits and vegetables and dairy while eight out of 10 eat too much fat, sugar and calories. Bottom-line, our children are overfed, yet undernourished. The 2007 National Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance reports that only 21 percent of adolescents in grades nine through 12 consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Many studies have shown that by starting the day with breakfast, academic performance improves; attention span increases and students are better able to process information more effectively. By consciously choosing nutrient-rich first, all Americans, especially our children, will be positioned to meet their nutrition requirements without over consuming calories.

Second, rethink drinks and beverages that children are consuming. Sugar sweetened beverages, specifically sodas and fruit drinks, add an extra 356 calories to the daily diet of over 84 percent of our teens. And the largest increase in sugar sweetened beverages is among children ages six to 11 years. Unfortunately, these drinks have replaced nutrient-rich milk, 100 percent juice and water. Considering milk is the number one food source of calcium, vitamin D and potassium identified in the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines as lacking in the typical diet, adolescents and children can fill a nutrient gap with milk. In fact, a 2008 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reports that children and teens who drink white or flavored milk have higher nutrient intakes of vitamin A, calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus, and their body mass index (BMI) is lower than or comparable to the BMIs of non-milk drinkers.

Concerned that flavored milk has too much sugar like other sweetened beverages? Flavored milk contributes less than two percent of the total added sugar to the average teen’s diet. According to research by US Department of Agriculture, 66 percent of milk chosen by children is low- fat or fat- free flavored milk. Removing flavored milk from the lunchroom line resulted in a 63 percent reduction in milk consumption in kindergarten through fifth grade, a 50 percent reduction in sixth through eighth grade and an almost 40 percent reduction in high school. Rethink all beverages and drinks, but keep low -fat flavored milk as a option for school aged children and teens.

Finally, bring play back to the school playground. It’s no secret that active play time among children and teens has declined as more sedentary activities in front of a media screen have increased. Today our children’s thumbs are the most frequently worked muscle in their bodies! The science-based guidelines for children ages six to 17 include one hour or more of physical activity daily. Certainly unstructured recess, or free play, contributes to overall physical activity and encourages social development.

Increasing physical activity in connection with programs during and after school builds not only stronger bodies, but also greater self-awareness, longer attention span, more homework completion and lower dropout rate.

One powerful way to increase both physical activity and healthier eating is to join forces with the National Dairy Council and the National Football League and organize Fuel Up to Play 60 (FUTP60) in schools. FUTP60 encourages students to take action and involve their classmates to improve nutrition and physical activity at their school and in their own families. FUTP60 ensures changes made at school are real and practical, providing children more opportunities to be active and to eat more nutrient-rich foods during and after school. Today over 60 percent of the nation’s 96,000 private and public schools are enrolled, with over 70,000 FUTP60 wellness kits placed in schools. Useful resources, information and tools can be found on www.fueluptoplay60.com. In addition, grants are available. Let’s join forces, play as a team, and tackle childhood obesity once and for all so that our next generation can keep the game going!

(A list of references for this article can be requested at [email protected].) Tammy Beasley is a registered dietitian with a specialty in sports nutrition and eating disorders, author of “Rev it Up: The Lifestyle Diet that Puts You in the Drivers Seat,” and mother of two high school sons.
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