Schools fight to reverse epidemic of obesity

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LOGAN - Just like the real John Kerry, 9-year-old Sage Mascaro lost to George Bush in her P.E. class's mock version of the presidential election.

Unlike Kerry, Sage wasn't bothered a bit.

"I don't care. It's just a game," says Sage, a fourth-grader at the Utah State University Edith Bowen Laboratory elementary school.

On a late October day, Sage and 25 other third- and fourth-graders had just wrapped up games of "register to vote tag" and "electoral college tag," which provided them with an unlikely combination of exercise, electioneering and healthy living habits.

Created by Analisa Anderson, a physical education and creative movement teacher, such games may be crucial in Utah educators' campaign against child obesity.

Faced with a national obesity epidemic that the U.S. Surgeon General says could make this generation's children the first in American history not to exceed the average life expectancy of their parents, schools everywhere are counting the calories in their lunches to ensure they don't put students at greater risk.

Merely improving cafeteria menus, however, will not make kids immune to gaining weight, says Zoltan Acs, a University of Baltimore economics professor and co-author of a recent obesity study.

Obesity has pervaded American society, with multi-faceted causes and effects.

To defeat what many physicians now define as a disease, educators say they must attack on many fronts. Adults must serve as role models: eating healthy foods and exercising regularly. Schools must offer a regimen of nutritional foods. Teachers must make healthy living a part of the curriculum.

Failing grade: In Utah, some of these things are happening and some are not, but educators are trying.

Because the issue of obesity is so complicated, Acs says the only way to fight it is to "address it at the level of the children." His study, which assigned states grades on their attempts to control childhood obesity, gave Utah an "F."

The "Report Card's" methodology examined eight types of state efforts, including what foods and beverages schools offered during school hours and whether obesity education is in the curriculum. No state earned an "A." Twenty three received an "F" for "taking no action at all," the report says. Is this why Utah earned an F?

Acs compared the struggle to control childhood obesity to efforts to keep kids from using tobacco. "It took us years to figure it out," he says. "This is even more complex. Everyone has to eat. It's very difficult."

Whatever the final formula turns out to be, exercise and nutrition are crucial.

Tamara Vitale, a USU professor of dietetics, says inactivity is "a big one" among the causes of child obesity. "Many live in unsafe communities, latchkey communities, so their entertainment is electronic - computer games, the Internet," she says.

What's most important is that children enjoy physical activities, Anderson says. If they do, the urge to be active will ultimately come from within. "They'll say, 'That was fun. Let's do that again.' "

To reinforce that pleasure, Anderson says, teachers should show children that they also live their lives in a healthy way, regardless of body type.

Toni Williams, the diabetes coordinator at Salt Lake City's Indian Walk-in Center, takes that role seriously. Eight months ago, Williams, a 5-foot-3-inch member of the Arapaho tribe, weighed 225 pounds. At the end of October, she weighed 175. Her goal is 150 pounds.

"I want to be a good example," says Williams, whose center serves Salt Lake's American Indian population. "I count calories and the amount of fat in the food I eat. A lot of my clients work many hours and struggle to make ends meet. It takes hard work and discipline, but I want to show them they can do it, too."

The center offers healthy lifestyle classes for youth, physical education classes for kindergarten through sixth graders and basketball for those 6 to 18.

Such programs are particularly important for young American Indians. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), obesity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes among all races and ethnic groups, but studies have found obesity rates are increasing in many American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

Creating healthier meals: The decline in nutritional food eaten by children is due to recently developed cultural habits, Vitale says. Families no longer eat together, either because they don't know how to cook or don't have time.

"They grab calorically dense foods with no fruits and vegetables - and no fiber," Vitale says. "They cost less, but they have lots of calories. Family meals tend to have more nutrients. It's another reason to preserve family meal times."

To provide some balance, Utah school districts eight years ago began serving lunch menus based on nutrient analyses, says Marilyn Clayton, Jordan School District's director of nutrition services.

"We've been trying to cut fat, sugar and sodium levels since 1996," she says. "We also make sure to go over the recommended daily allowances of calcium, iron and vitamins A and C."

The fact that all Jordan schools prepare their food on-site, and make some of their recipes from scratch, also helps control the nutritional content of what students eat.

Still, Vitale and Acs say marketing by the fast-food and food processing industries make it a challenge to persuade kids to eat healthier. "Cookies, pizza, sugar cereals - that's what kids see, so that's what they want," Vitale says.

Even school officials doubt recent initiatives to provide healthier choices in school vending machines will change student preferences all that much. Utah school districts reap millions every year from soda and snack foods sold from vending machines.

A look at two lunch periods at Jordan High School just before Halloween seemed to tell the tale. Despite a salad bar and a daily choice of 14 different types of food, many students there conceded they ate a lot of junk - and weren't all that worried about it.

"I eat everything," says Nikki Jeffs, a 5-foot-4-inch, 150-pound 15-year-old from Sandy, after having a cheeseburger and fries. "I don't play sports, but I take a walk every day. Sometimes I worry about my health, but not too much."

Getting more exercise: If Edith Bowen teacher Anderson's phys-ed philosophy catches on, perhaps students won't have to fret about obesity.

To play their pre-Election Day games, Anderson's students scampered to evade classmates trying to tag them as voters registered as Democrats or Republicans. After a few minutes, the children did it again, this time to decide which state - and how many electoral votes they would provide each candidate - they would represent.

In both rounds, tagged students went to the other side of gym and did exercises such as crunches, push-ups or jumping jacks.

"Here, P.E. is fun and non-threatening," says Stefani Carroll, 21, a USU elementary education major studying under Anderson. "You're not pitting one against the other, so the kids not as good are never left out."

With that kind of goal, it's possible Utah teachers could achieve the goal of one of Carroll's professors, which is a play on words of Bush's education reform law: "No Child Left on Their Behinds."