The president recently signed an executive order calling for a new assault on childhood obesity. Headed by the first lady, the program aims to focus the efforts of government and the private sector on helping kids get healthy.
It is desperately needed. One in three children is now overweight, according to a January 20th Journal of the American Medical Association report, raising their risk of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, and heralding unprecedented medical bills. Winning this battle requires more than breaking personal habits. It requires changing our fundamental view of the problem.
First, we need to go beyond exhorting children to exercise. As helpful as exercise is, studies show that a lack of physical activity has played almost no role in the obesity epidemic. The fact is, an overweight child would have to run flat out for three miles to burn off the calories in an order of chicken nuggets, to say nothing about the fries and soda that accompany it and the pizza waiting at home. Exercise is good, but it is not the key to weight control.
We also need to do more than clean up school vending machines. Yes, they are typically unhealthy, and we are better off without them. But on any given day, 60 percent of children never go near them anyway.
The real problem is smack in the middle of the American plate. Slowly but surely over the last several decades, fast-food restaurants, pizza chains, and government subsidies have escorted meat, cheese, and sugar into our lives in unprecedented quantities.
Over the last century, the average American’s meat intake has gone up by 75 pounds per year. Cheese intake has increased by nearly 30 pounds. The average American has added 17 extra pounds of sugar to his yearly intake just since 1970. The result is a diet loaded with fat, especially saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease and more calories than most of us can burn off.
In 2007, the American Medical Association proposed an effective solution. Rather than focusing on how much our kids are eating, it aims at what they are eating. The AMA resolved that schools should provide vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, and vegetarian foods, in addition to whatever else they may offer. The reason is simple: plant-based options, like veggie burgers, vegetarian chili, beans and rice, or hummus with pita bread, have essentially no saturated fat or cholesterol and are modest in calories. If schools provide plant-based meals every day and children take advantage of them at least occasionally, they will set the stage for a lifetime of healthful habits.
To do this, schools need help. Some plant-based meals are cheap like beans and rice or veggie chili, for example. Others, such as veggie burgers, might cost more. But if the commodities program that supplies foods for school includes plenty of plant-based options, and if schools have incentives for serving them, it will not be difficult to provide healthful foods for children. Healthy foods for children is not a new idea. But it is a powerful one, and it can help us win this battle once and for all.
Neal Barnard, MD, is a nutrition researcher and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.