How Should Schools Help Fight Pervasive Obesity Problem?

A report by the Institute of Medicine warns that obesity has become so entrenched in the US that reversing the epidemic will take a huge investment and drive from schools, doctors and employers. Betsy Mackay, writing in the Wall Street Journal, argues that schools will be pivotal if any fight against obesity is to succeed.

In 2009-10 almost 36% of adults and almost 17% of children were obese. This is predicted to rise to 42% of the population by 2030. While estimates of the financial cost resulting from obesity related illnesses do vary widely, the IOM puts the figure at $190.2 per year. Further increases in the number of obese people will only add more cost, strain the healthcare system and come with an additional unquantifiable societal cost.

“If you believe this is a massive national problem, you have to deal with it in a systems way,” said Dan Glickman, chairman of the panel that wrote the report and a former secretary of the Department of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton.

“This problem is incapable of being solved with a magic bullet.”

The obvious starting point for reducing the number of obese adults in society is to tackle the number of obese children. Children in schools can learn dietary and exercise habits that will last them their whole lives. Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign is one that seeks to promote a complete nutritional overhaul of subsidized school lunches. There are many ideas about how to best tackle childhood obesity, revolving, not surprisingly, around more exercise and better diet. However the drive to ban unhealthy foods from schools often meets resistance. For example Congress blocked efforts to remove pizza from school menus because it has some ‘vegetable’ content.

“The problem is not coming up with good ideas about what to do about obesity, it’s about actually doing them,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has advocated for stronger nutritional standards in marketing and school lunch programs.

The issue isn’t simply one of public health either, although the cost is high. An additional cost of the obesity epidemic is that it may well have a negative impact on learning, exam grades and subsequently, income potential of the child and societal contribution. A study from Louisiana, examining nearly 100,000 students, found that children’s fitness level correlated strongly with their test scores. Parents and Schools need to work on the issue of fitness with children under their care.

The Institute of Medicine is an independent advisory body to the federal government on health policy. They currently recommend that schools should require at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. They have also stated that if food companies don’t voluntarily work to improve nutritional standards for food targeted at under 18s then government should make such standards mandatory.

05 17, 2012
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