During last night’s State of the Union address, the POTUS gave nod to the FLOTUS for childhood obesity rates being at a 30-year low. Whether or not you agree with this claim, or the notion of crediting the FLOTUS’s Let’s Move campaign for decreasing childhood obesity, you have to acknowledge the impact of childhood obesity. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more than one-third of children in the United States were overweight or obese in 2010. Long-term, these children are more likely to remain overweight as adults, making them more susceptible to health problems, such as type-2 diabetes and heart disease. I tend to be skeptical when it comes to statistics, and like to weigh confounding factors before making snap judgments. However, I’m a teacher, and I see children every day. More importantly, they see me, and believe me when I say, the kids ARE watching.
I tuned in to NBC’s Biggest Loser last week for the first time in years (it was makeover week), and one contestant in particular stood out to me. A mother of two adolescent daughters, Jennifer described feelings of intense guilt for modeling poor habits for her children, presumably the reason why one of her daughters was/is also significantly overweight. At one point in the show, the producers noted Jennifer’s daughter was closely following her mom’s journey and was on a weight loss journey of her own. Interestingly enough, Jennifer’s bio indicates she started gaining weight at the age of eight. In this case, as with many others, childhood obesity has had a multi-generational impact.
From my own experience, I can attest healthy habits start at home. Growing up, there was food we always had in our kitchen (milk, Cheerios, fruit, vegetables), food we rarely had in our kitchen (Honey-Nut or Apple-Cinnamon Cheerios), and food we absolutely never had in our kitchen (pop/sugar laden beverages, the sugary cereal brands kids want, processed foods in general). My grandmother was a type-2 diabetic, and my mother was hyper-aware of obesity (she did something right, because she bore six children and you’d never know by looking at her). Any “junk” food we consumed usually came from the weekly visit to grandma’s. Despite my mother’s protesting, week after week we’d arrive to delicacies such as cherry cheesecake, banana bread, refrigerator cake, cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, and bags full of whatever my grandmother won at Bingo. However, my parents were great models for moderation and self-control, and having a slice of cake every now and then wasn’t going to derail the effects of overall healthy habits.
Children are sponges, and they form tastes and opinions based on exposure and experience. I got my 7 year-old nephew a subscription to Highlights magazine for his birthday (if you’re seven, getting mail with your name on it is a pretty big deal, and the sincerity of his thank you almost made me cry). Apparently, he insisted on making (or my sister making) one of the recipes from his recent issue, which happened to be a salad. My sorority sister Ingrid has been making gradual changes to her diet since she gave up meat for lent last year, and frequently juices (a habit she picked up from her mother). Last night she posted an adorable picture of her two youngest children, who insisted on drinking her freshly pressed broccoli-spniach-kale-chard-lemon-pear-apple-carrot juice. Some mornings, I don’t get ready quick enough (or wake up early enough) to eat my breakfast at home, and I end up packing it to-go (skipping breakfast is never an option). I have breakfast duty with a kindergarten class, and they are always very concerned with my food — typically a bunch of spinach topped with two over easy eggs, two strips of bacon, and half an avocado. Why are you eating lunch for breakfast? No avocado today? If you eat too much salad, you’ll turn into a frog. Is that a tomato? Where are your eggs?
The FLOTUS may or may not be responsible for lowering childhood obesity, but it’s more likely the case parents (and other adults) like Jennifer, Ingrid, and my own mother and sister are responsible for lowering childhood obesity. The change you decide to make to live a healthier life for yourself is so much bigger than you. Even if you don’t have children of your own, they see you passing by on a daily run, or dining at a restaurant, or eating your breakfast/lunch at school (I’m talking to you, teachers and school staff!). And believe you me, they ARE watching!