In the United States, one out of every five kids is overweight by the age of six. Childhood obesity is an issue that is getting worse each year. Obesity occurs when people consume too many calories and do not get enough exercise. Technology, while it has made our lives easier, has definitely been a contributing factor in the obesity epidemic. For example, before the 1990s students had to walk to the library to look up a fact. Now, students can go online, find the info they need, and move on. In 2011, the childhood obesity rate in the U.S. reached 17 percent (about 13 million). By comparison, at that time Africa had a childhood obesity rate of 8.5 percent, and in Asia around 5 percent of preschoolers were overweight.
America needs to find ways to stop this unhealthy epidemic, and the best way to do that is to understand the causes. One factor that contributes to the problem is the abundance of sugary drinks and unhealthy foods in schools. Even though schools try to offer students healthy food, more than half of U.S. middle and high schools sell snacks that appeal to students’ sweet tooth, such as fruit roll-ups, chips, cookies, and ice cream. Vending machines stocked with junk food and sugary drinks can be found in schools and sports venues – places frequented by kids.
Another cause is too much screen time. Children eight to 18 years old spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using electronic devices such as cell phones, TVs, or computers. This takes time away from physical activities, increases calorie intake through snacking, and influences children to make unhealthy food choices through exposure to junk food ads. Lastly, the biggest cause of childhood obesity is oversized food portions. Over time, food portions have increased, causing us to consume extra and unnecessary calories. In 1956, movie theater popcorn was sold in five-cup portions; now it’s sold in tubs of 10 to 15 cups.
A third factor contributing to childhood obesity is poverty. Healthy foods are much more expensive than junk food. According to CNSNews.com, 23.1 percent of Americans were recipients of welfare in 2011. Kids who live with parents with a lower income tend to have a less healthy diet. When faced with a choice between a $1 hamburger at McDonald’s or a $5 foot-long sandwich at Subway, clearly a low-income person is more likely to patronize McDonald’s. Sadly, many do not have the money to eat a healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Childhood obesity comes with dangerous physical and emotional effects. One is increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. Another is depression due to low self-esteem. Many overweight kids do not participate in normal activities, sleep more, and get bullied.
So how can we address this epidemic?
Imagine being allowed to chew gum in class and not get in trouble. Chewing sugar-free gum can raise a person’s metabolic rate by 10 percent. Chewing 50 times a minute burns 35 calories per hour. In addition, chewing gum can stop cravings for unhealthy foods like chips, ice cream, or chocolate.
Another way that schools can help prevent obesity is to add more protein to meals. Studies show that consuming protein increases the metabolic rate and helps reduce one’s appetite. Since it takes more energy to metabolize, a high-protein diet can increase the calories burned by 80 to 100 calories per day. Studies also show that consuming 25 percent of one’s calories as protein can reduce obsessive thoughts about food by 60 percent and cut desire for late-night snacking by 50 percent.
Schools can also add more water fountains. This would give students more opportunity to drink water, which can increase the number of calories a person burns for up to 90 minutes. Drinking about two liters of water per day can burn 96 more calories. If teachers have students drink water before taking them to lunch, it will reduce their hunger, leading them to decrease their calorie intake.
Another easy solution schools should take is decreasing the amount of sugar in meals. Children these days are consuming an overload of sugar compared to the daily recommendation. Kids between nine and 19 consume on average 23 to 34 teaspoons a day, while the recommendation is five to eight. If schools cut back the sugar in lunches as much as possible, it will decrease students’ risk for diabetes and other diseases.
Finding ways to get kids moving even when they do not have physical education is something schools should be doing. Sadly, many students do not get enough exercise. Many schools don’t even require students to take PE. If schools could include some time each day for exercising and stretching, kids would not be as chunky.
Lastly, an excellent way to prevent childhood obesity is to promote the use of pedometers that count the number of steps you take. If you have an iPhone 6, this feature is built in (under an application called “Health”). Based on research, taking 10,000 steps a day will burn 500 calories; in a week that’s 3,500 calories. Since 3,500 calories is equivalent to a pound, an additional 10,000 steps a day can lead to losing a pound a week, or 52 pounds per year. However, this can only happen if one maintains a healthy diet and is consistent about physical activity.
Obesity is one of the biggest problems in America. But the good news is it’s preventable and treatable. Currently schools do not really focus on the importance of prevention. The 55 million children enrolled in schools across America deserve better. It’s time to cure this epidemic.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.