My first book, Feed Your Kids Well, was far ahead of its time. It was 1999 — long before the childhood obesity epidemic was a household conversation topic — and people were not ready to acknowledge the fact that too many kids were getting fat in this country.
And they certainly didn’t want to be told that we needed to do something about it.
I was ridiculed on national television. Grandmothers would cry in my office when I told them they needed to stop feeding their grandkids junk. They told me I was depriving their little ones.
They had confused overindulging kids with being good to them. They didn’t see that loading them up on sugar wasn’t, in fact, a gift. So it was hard to convince them that the best gift they could give the child was health — and to teach them healthy lessons that they could carry into adulthood.
Fast forward almost two decades, and now people are at least willing to have the conversation. They may not be willing to do anything about it yet, if the endless sugar-fueled school celebrations and birthday parties are any indication…but that’s a rant for another day.
Still, I’m encouraged that at least I’m no longer seen as a pariah when I talk about the problem of obesity in children. The fact of the matter is, I don’t talk about weight loss because I want the world to be thin. I talk about it because of how important it is for health. Losing weight is secondary to coming healthy.
And when we’re seeing young children suffering from diseases that were once reserved for unhealthy adults — high blood pressure, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, joint problems, fatty liver disease, gallstones — it’s our duty to help reverse the damage that’s being done.
And it’s up to us — the adults — to set the next generation up for success. Which is why you keep hearing me talk about how important it is to provide kids with healthy choices. And yes, I keep coming back to sugar-sweetened beverages as priority No. 1, because it’s such an easy fix.
If we could just get kids to kick their soda/juice/sports drink habit, we’d see dramatic changes in childhood obesity rates.
A new study bears that out pretty dramatically. According to the study, if elementary, middle, and high schools in the United States provided students with fresh fruits and vegetables and did away with sugar-sweetened beverages, deaths from coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes would drop many years later.
(This is, of course, predicated on the notion that school food budgets won’t be cut in favor of more weapons for the military. But again, that’s a rant for another time.)
Researchers estimate that almost 1 percent of all deaths from cardiometabolic causes could be prevented by avoiding beverages with sugar. That’s one simple change that is completely achievable. Isn’t that significant enough to educate and legislate about?
Our current administration and others who think that intervening in nutrition represents government overreach won’t want to hear this. But if we want to improve the health of the next generation, we need to change the rules surrounding food in schools. Students consume more than a third of their daily food intake during the school day, so it makes sense to intervene there. We need to fix bad habits while kids are young, rather than addressing diet and obesity later in life, when it just may be too late — as we are seeing now.
Obesity genetically affects us for generations. So today’s problems are just the tip of the iceberg. Things are only going to get uglier. Besides the genetic component, the way we learn how and what to eat occurs in childhood. And the obesity that occurs as a result of poor education on food choices will persist into adulthood. It’s a proven fact.
Your kids and grandkids will not just outgrow it.
School policies for serving healthy food and beverages to students is just one piece of the puzzle to tackle childhood obesity and subsequent cardiometabolic deaths, since kids also drink sugary beverages outside of school.
But we have to start somewhere, or I’m afraid this epidemic will get the best of us…and our kids.