The alarming possibility that we are shortening our children’s lifespan only underlines what health officials are saying about obesity, that it is the most pressing health concern in the country. In the short term we’re setting these kids up to be teased and ostracized, but over the long term health experts predict alarming rates of diabetes and other obesity-related diseases.
Tonight to help us with these issues, I'm joined in the studio by Carol Voss, a nutritionist with the Iowa Department of Public Health, and by Vernon Delpesce, who is the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Des Moines.
Mundt: Carol and Vernon, we adults make a lot of decisions for kids, and so in some sense we are able to control this problem. So why is it getting out of hand?
Voss: Well, we're competing with a lot of advertising, that's for sure, and there's a lot of money that they can put into that. They're actually targeting children -- or targeting parents through their children to spend their advertising dollars and their consumer demands. So it puts a whole different light on things.
Mundt: Vernon, what are other factors that you think have an influence that take this matter really out of our control as parents?
Delpesce: Well, advertising is one issue but just the amount of screen time -- what I call screen time. That's kids spend sitting in front of a television or sitting in front of a computer screen, that when I was a kid I would have just been outside playing. I would have been outside just being active. And unfortunately today many of our neighborhoods are not conducive for kids to be able to do that, and parents don't feel comfortable just sending their kids out to go play in the way they did many years ago. So that's definitely a factor.
Mundt: And technology I’m assuming also has to play a role in this too. It makes our lives easier, but it means less energy expenditure.
Delpesce: Well, it is. I kind of kid around with my kids and I tell them, "you're not going to believe this, but when I was a kid, I used to have to walk all the way to the TV to change the channel," you know, and you don't have to do that anymore. But you're right, technology is a -- has been great and it's a great convenience for us. But at the same time, if not used properly, it comes back to haunt us, and this is one of those cases.
Mundt: Well, Carol, if the goal is to help children make better choices when it comes to food and also to get them to be more active, what kinds of programs are you putting out there to encourage parents to encourage children to do that, to provide children with new venues?
Voss: We have a program called "pick a better snack and act," and it's designed to help kids explore different fruits and vegetables that they may not have tasted before, similar to the Harkin program, and then different physical activities. That's the act portion. So we have developed monthly bingo cards that the kids can be successful by trying or exploring different fruits and vegetables and physical activities.
Mundt: Do you find that works pretty well, that it's successful? Kids are not the greatest when it comes to trying new things.
Voss: They actually -- the kids have had a lot of fun with it. We've had a lot of good feedback. The kids have tasted things they might not have because of the peer pressure, you know. If one of the popular kids tries it and, well, maybe this isn't so bad. It does take a long time, several different trials to change those taste buds and to accept them as part of your healthy diet.
Mundt: Do you see progress on this very important idea of the minimum number of servings per day of fruits and vegetables, progress in schools, progress in the homes, progress with kids?
Voss: I think if we can take maybe the focus off the number and just get people to think I need to eat more. If I’m eating one fruit or vegetable today, if I eat two, then I’ve doubled my consumption. And so if people can think, you know, I can try this, I can do it, it seems to be, you know, something that's attainable for our kids and our families.
Mundt: Vernon, the YMCA has a program called "Trim Kids" that's been getting a lot of attention lately. Tell me a little bit about what that program is trying to accomplish.
Delpesce: Well, that program is actually for children with a severe weight problem. And most of the kids that come to us are actually referred by their pediatrician. And we work with the entire family because obviously children don't do their own grocery shopping and don't do their own cooking. So it's a program that combines exercise, education from pediatricians and dietitians, and just the support of the other families that are involved in it. And it has been tremendously successful.
One of our greatest success stories is a young sixteen year old named Patsy Bratton, who is a local young lady here in Des Moines that has lost 110 pounds having been in that program. She has literally lost an entire person and is a new person.
Mundt: That picture was on the screen a moment ago. She looks happy and she's excited I think about what she's achieved, and she has achieved that.
Delpesce: She has. And now, incidentally, her goal is to become a dietitian and help teach other kids healthy eating habits, but it really has changed her entire person.
Mundt: The public policy level, there are a lot of ways in which government decisions will have a great impact on the lives of adults and children. Carol, is there one or two things that you'd like to see the government do, federal or state level, that would encourage either more activity or exercise or better food consumption?
Voss: Well, we don't want to dictate, of course, what people are going to do, but I think it will be helpful if it makes it easier for people to make those choices. So I’m not a proponent of taking away things, but I think there needs to be equal opportunity. So we need to have equal choice, healthy options.
Delpesce: And if I could throw in, increase the amount of time kids spend in physical education class. That --
Mundt: It's almost gone away.
Delpesce: In recent years it has been greatly decreased and has almost gone away, and in some cases it has gone away. And I think it happened with the idea of spending more time in academics. But studies show that if kids are healthier because they get that physical activity, they actually do better in school. So it's as much an academic achievement issue as it is a health issue.