Obesity is not just a problem of personal appearance for young people but a very serious health risk, the US Surgeon General says -- and at least two states are adopting policies to deal with it.
Overweight and obese children, about 14% of the nation's youth, are being diagnosed with heart disease, type 2 diabetes and hypertension as early as 3rd grade. The problem has prompted schools in California and Illinois to attack the two main contributors to this growing health epidemic: fast food and physical inactivity.
To help rid their schools of junk food, California intends to ban soda machines in elementary schools and regulate their use in middle schools. Although the policy does not take effect until 2004, health officials like it.
"Banning foods of low nutritional value is a great start for schools looking to incorporate healthier food choices (milk, juice and fruit)," says Rachelle Mirkin, a health director for the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group.
With Virginia and Hawaii considering similar legislation, soft drink companies are mounting a counter-offensive. A representative of the National Soft Drink Association say allegations linking soft drink consumption with chronic disease are "unfounded".
"For every study that says there is a problem with soft drinks and obesity, there is a stack of studies that show soft drinks are totally unrelated to those diseases," says association spokesman Sean McBride.
"Besides," McBride says, "it's overly simplistic to say if we remove competitive foods or soft drinks from schools obesity will go away.'"
Health officials agree that junk food is not the only problem, especially when only 29% of the nation's kids participate in daily physical education. This figure was 42% in 1991. Experts say this rise in inactivity comes from tougher academic standards that have required schools to cut back on physical education to make room for core courses.
"Schools are going back to the 3 "R's," but we need to remember exercise is a life skill that needs to be taught just like reading, writing and arithmetic," says Illinois state Rep. Elizabeth Coulson.
Coulson, a health care provider herself, helped pass legislation in the mid-90's making Illinois the only state in the nation mandating daily physical education for grades K-12.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, another reason for tackling the fat kid crisis is its annual $100 billion dollar price tag. This expense, coupled with a 70% likelihood that obese children will become obese adults, has officials getting the message out early to eat a variety of foods in moderation and get plenty of exercise.
"If we don't prevent heart disease and obesity early we are going to end up with higher health care cost and more problems with Medicare and Medicaid, something our society can't sustain," Coulson adds.
See if your child is overweight. Go to http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/bmi/calc-bmi.htm