Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Right Problem, Wrong Cure

Soda and other sweetened drinks may be eliminated from elementary school cafeterias if the American Beverage Association has its way. (MSNBC: Trade group calls for ban on soda in schools). Their goal certainly sounds noble: to fight obesity in children. Unfortunately, obesity in school-aged children has little to do with the availability of soda in school cafeterias.

I've yet to see a health study that does not indicate a steady rise in obesity across all age groups. Diet is only a fraction of the problem, however. The availability of fast-foods, the predominance of fried foods, and the accessibility of sweetened drinks (primarily soda) has not changed much in the past three decades. What has changed is the amount of exercise being obtained across all age groups.

In my home state of RI, consider the following behavioral changes among school children:
  • Most students either get a ride to school or take a bus regardless of how close they live to the school. In fact, if they take the bus, they are often driven by their parents to the bus stop! Three decades ago, the only students eligible for the bus had to live at least a mile from the school. Everyone else walked.
  • Play-time is now spent online, using chat software, playing video games, or watching television. Rarely do you see children outside playing. Three decades ago, virtually all play-time was spent outdoors. Our summers were spent riding bikes, playing whiffleball or basketball, or just about anything else that caught our imagination. These activities are rare, today.
  • Free-time is planned and structured. Kids today are involved in far more activities than their 1975 counterparts, however as a result they are far less active. They simply do not have the time to engage in physical activity. Even sports programs are structured to the point where there's relatively little cardiovascular benefit.

Candy, soda, and ice cream were all readily accessible in school three decades ago, yet very few school children qualified as obese. The difference was the exercise level enjoyed just through normal daily activities.

The solution to today's obesity problem is not a change in diet; it's a change in behavior. To keep Johnny thin you simply need to turn off the computer, turn off the TV, turn off the PS2 and send Johnny outside to play. It really is as simple as that.


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