You don’t have to be Jenny Craig or Richard Simmons to see that America has a weight problem. Adult obesity rates have soared since the 1970s, climbing from 15 percent to about 33 percent in 2004.

Imran Syed
Rachel Wagner

Even more alarming, two thirds of all adults are considered overweight. Blame the proliferation of fast-food restaurants, the lack of physical exercise or the media’s portrayal of unrealistically skinny people (now with size 00, you can apparently be less than nothing). But from whatever angle you take, it’s clear that America needs to trim some inches from its waistline.

But this weight-related concern is not a vanity issue; it’s a health issue. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a size 4 or a size 14. There is something wrong when a person’s weight endangers his or her life. Diseases like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension are side effects of being dangerously overweight. Lately, these typically adult afflictions have started to creep their way into younger generations.

Childhood obesity is a growing problem. More than 30 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are considered overweight and 15 percent are considered obese. While genetics may play a part, poor eating habits and inactivity are the key causes of this alarming trend.

The American Obesity Association has called today’s kids “the most inactive generation in history.” Children are playing fewer sports and more video games. Watermelon Jolly Rangers have replaced real watermelon. With less active forms of entertainment and tempting sugary snacks, today’s youth do not have the practical habits to ensure a healthy future.

School officials and legislators alike have started the necessary fight against childhood obesity by targeting nutrition and exercise practices in the classroom. Gym classes are going beyond traditional kickball and basketball to combine the appeal of video games with physical activity.

At least 10 states regularly use “Dance Dance Revolution,” the interactive dance video game, in their gym curriculums to make kids actually break a sweat. West Virginia, the state leading this movement, aims to install “DDR” in all 765 of its public schools by fall of this year.

Even if some school children won’t be playing “DDR” in gym class, they probably will find new food options in their cafeterias. Last year, former President Bill Clinton partnered with the American Heart Association to improve nutritional education and work with food suppliers to provide healthier snack and drink options in schools.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has also joined in the fight by backing the Healthy Food Act in the state legislature. The ambitious bill would ban soda and many junk foods from schools and set limits for the sugar, sodium and fat content of cafeteria food.

Michigan could use some of this ambition. Despite being ranked 19th nationally in highest rates of childhood obesity, Michigan has yet to pass any preventative legislation.

Eliminating certain foods from cafeterias and implementing DDR in gym classes are useful measures, but they cannot be counted on to solve the childhood obesity epidemic. In order to get children to live healthier, they must first be taught to do so. Banning soda in schools may temporarily prevent children from drinking it, but unless they know why the soda was banned, their behavior won’t change. They’ll just drink it outside of school instead.

Nutrition education programs, spanning from preschool to high school, should be worked into school curriculums if real change in children’s eating and exercise habits is to be made. Ninety New York preschools took part in “Healthy Kids Day,” which exposed children to fun activities promoting exercise and healthy eating. It’s important to reach kids at such a young age because that’s when they develop their habits. If kids can develop healthy lifestyles early, they will be more likely to adhere to them, especially if these behaviors are reinforced each year in school.

With a little tweaking, an old adage still holds true. Give a kid a healthy meal and he’ll eat healthy for a day, teach a kid to eat a healthy meal and he’ll eat healthy for a lifetime.

Rachel Wagner can be reached at rachwag@umich.edu.

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