Parents of school-age children are in between a rock and a hard place when it comes to keeping their kids within a healthy weight range. It's easy to make blanket statements like "eat healthier," or "eat less," or "get active," but talk is nothing without tools; something parents are running low on these days.
In late November, an eight-year-old third grader was taken away from his family in Ohio because he weighed 200 pounds. The debate about whether or not he should remain in the home has stirred a lot of controversy. It's safe to say that no child in third grade should weigh 200 pounds; the health consequences are enormous. But are parents really the only people responsible for the well-being of children? As if parenthood doesn't bring it's own share of challenges without worrying about the weight of their child, caregivers are now forced to sift through a sea of mixed messages from our education system, nutrition authorities and government.
The Message: Physical Activity Can't Be That Important
Playtime is a rite of passage for any young child. Yet a growing number of elementary schools across the country have cut out both physical education classes and recess for budget reasons. According to the CDC, fewer than 4% of elementary school have physical education classes five days a week. For many children, recess and PE class is the only activity they participate in. In a formal setting, such as school, it fosters the importance of exercise and builds the confidence and skill sets children need to excel physically later in life. What's more, as little as 10 minutes of physical activity a day in young people can improve both behavior and academics. Somewhere along the road, that message was lost.
The Score: Twinkies 1, Apples 0
Every year we spend billions of dollars in federal subsidies that go specifically toward junk food additives, including high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, corn starch and hydrogenated oils. Our corn and soy industries are incredibly grateful for this. Just about every junk food, even the healthy-sounding foods, contain one of these ingredients. Unless you scrutinize every label, these ingredients are really hard to avoid. According to the group U.S. PIRG, every taxpayer spends just under $8 on funding junk food annually, and 11 cents funding apples annually. For you and I, this isn't a lot of money, but factor in every tax paying citizen, and the amount going to junk food is in the neighborhood of $18 billion annually, with a much, much lesser amount going to fresh, healthy foods. Money talks. Fresh fruits and vegetables don't have a lot to say to parents.
The Spin: It's Cheap, Fast and Healthier...right?
A lot of time and money has gone into ensuring us that fast food is healthier than what it used to be. According to Fast Food FACTS, the reality is still far from healthy. Of the 3,039 meal combinations offered at fast food restaurant chains, only 15 met nutrition requirements for children. Young children are exposed to dozens of fast food commercials, marketed directly to them, every week. Accoding to AdAge, McDonald's spends a mind-boggling $1.2 billion dollars on advertising. That's over $3.2 million a day, with about 40% of that directed toward children. That's one fast food chain.
A trip to the grocery store for the average family is even more complicated than discerning so-called "healthy" fast food from the unhealthy. Colorful packages on grocery store shelves everywhere boast stellar nutrition qualities - from juices super charged with vitamins to cookies loaded with heart healthy fiber. While the juice is still just sugar and the cookies are still junk food, parents a buying into it. After all, we're told time and time again how poorly we eat; not getting enough vitamins or fiber. The bottom line is junk food with healthy ingredients is still junk food.
The Truth: Hindering the Hardest Hit
According to the USDA, any family participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can, in theory, use their allowance toward junk food exclusively. That's right, soda, candy, chips, and every processed food that sits on a shelf and can be taken home is fair game. I would find it hard to believe if any parent actually did this, but the boundary between what's acceptable and what's unacceptable is mighty grey.
Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years. Within that group live 2 million children who are considered extremely obese. What's the solution? Moving each of those children out of a home that is probably loving and into a foster care, or addressing the crisis of obesity as something that is much more than a parental issue?