It happens every day in lunchrooms across America. It is a dangerous act with dire consequences. Yet, it most likely goes unnoticed by the casual observer because it is such a commonplace occurrence. It is not childhood bullying. It is not any other physical or verbal abuse; however, this act’s consequences are just as harmful to our children as the more overt actions aforementioned. What is the action of which I speak?
A young child reaches into his lunch bag and pulls out…[insert sugary, fatty, salty snack here].
The site of a Twinkie being pulled from a child’s brown bag lunch may not be the type of thing that would insight horror in most people, but perhaps it should. We live in a society today that is plagued by obesity. This is bad for the nation as a whole, but it is terrible for our children. The children of today are the first generation in over 200 years that may have shorter life spans than their parents. This does not bode well for the future of our nation, and it certainly is not fair for the youth of America.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than tripled over the past 30 years. This has led to an obesity rate of 19.6% and 18.1% in children aged 6-11 and 12-19, respectively. The long-term effects of these rising trends are yet to be seen in full force, but they will undoubtedly mean higher rates of obesity-linked diseases such as heart disease, heart attack, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, and osteoarthritis as these obese children grow into obese adults. We already observe the short-term effects obesity is having on these children. It causes increased incidents of bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social psychological problems linked to low self-esteem. (See the CDC’s website for more details).
The good news regarding this epidemic is that it is easily preventable and reversible. Unfortunately, the bad news regarding this epidemic is that it is easily preventable and reversible. Why is this bad news you may ask? The simple fact is that we as parents, food producers, educators, and child-care providers are not taking the necessary steps to begin the prevention and the reversal. My theory on this is that obesity is still not widely seen as a disease. We all see that more and more people are getting fatter and fatter, but we still tend to chalk it up as a personal problem resulting from a lack of will power in each obese individual. As such, we tend to write it off as a personal problem more than a societal one. And we definitely don’t acknowledge obesity as a disease. Yet, the CDC, the government’s agency devoted to the treatment and prevention of diseases in our nation, has an entire section of their website devoted to obesity. This should be a wake-up call to us that obesity is here. It’s dangerous. And it is not going away until we decide to take action. We take preventative measures every day to keep our children from falling victim to particular diseases. We vaccinate them against the Chicken Pox, Influenza, and Hepatitis. We teach them to wash their hands to ward off germs that lead to sickness and disease. Now, it is time to teach them healthy habits that will keep them safe from the disease of obesity.
That leads to the good news. As mentioned earlier, obesity is an epidemic that is both preventable and reversible. Simple steps and lifestyle changes are the most effective ways to win the battle for our children. As parents, educators, and role models, we must be the first line of defense for our children against obesity. If left to his own devices, a child is going to choose a chocolate chip cookie over a carrot any day. Who could blame him?? However, children also absorb everything they are surrounded by. If they see their parents eating healthy foods and exercising, they will learn quickly that these are good habits. Likewise, if we as parents talk to our children about the importance of healthy eating and active lifestyles, they will absorb the information we are relaying. They may do so begrudgingly and reluctantly, but it will eventually sink in.
Pack a Punch with a Healthy School Lunch
While we can’t control everything our kids do outside of the home, we can take one very important step toward keeping them healthy and fit. We can ensure that they are getting the nutrition they need in the form of healthy school lunches. It is easy to give into our kids and take the easier route by throwing a Little Debbie snack and a frozen pizza into a bag and calling it a lunch. But this is only hurting them in the long run. Children need well-balanced, nutritional lunches that provide the vitamins and minerals they need to grow and stay healthy. Not to mention, healthy lunches lead to better school performance, better sleep, more energy, and overall well-being.
A nutritional lunch consists of a well-balanced meal that contains the three essentials: lean protein, complex carbohydrate, and a fruit or vegetable. Instead of packing a white bread ham sandwich with a side of potato chips, soda, and cookies, think of a more nutrient-rich, health-packed lunch such as a whole wheat tortilla filled with turkey breast, lettuce, and tomato with a side of sliced apples and pears. For dessert, instead of cookies, provide a yogurt parfait with low-fat yogurt, fresh berries, and granola or air-popped, low-fat popcorn. There are a ton of healthy options out there that taste delicious. A child will pick high-fat options over healthy ones almost every time because french fries always look more appetizing than carrot sticks. But it is important to establish healthy eating habits so that they will learn over time to make the healthier choices. Packing healthy school lunches is one way to promote this behavior.
Now, the next battle is the school lunches provided to our children by their school cafeterias. If children are buying their lunches every day or if they are among the nearly 30 million children that receive lunches provided by the National School Lunch Program, we as parents have less control over what they are being served. But that is beginning to change, and we can take actions to ensure that it does. It is a fact that the lunches served in schools across America are too high in saturated fat, calories, and cholesterol and too low in fiber, and nutrient-rich foods, as seen in the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s 2008 report card on school lunches. This organization is working hard through its Healthy School Lunch campaign to educate parents, schools, and other caregivers on providing healthy school lunch options. We as parents can aid in this by encouraging our school districts to work with this group or others like it to establish healthy lunches. We can also lobby our school districts and our local politicians to establish healthier guidelines for what is served to our children at school. We must show Congress that this is on top of our priority list so that they will pass a bill that will improve the quality of food served to our children.
Until we start treating this like the disease and epidemic it truly is, our kids will continue to get fatter and fatter. This is not fair to them, and it is not what we need for the future of our nation. We have been able to improve the quality and quantity of life for our citizens for the last 2 centuries. It does not seem right that this generation, growing up amongst the best and most advanced technology our world has ever seen, should be the first generation to reverse the trend of quality and longevity of life.