Anyone who has been a parent, or a kid for that matter, knows that the life of a teenager is often a state of confusion loosely controlled by peers, trends and a seed of good taste.
Mom’s once-revered advice starts to have the tinny resonance of an old cassette tape. On one hand we long to see them come into their own; while the other hand clutches those apron strings so tightly you’d think it would take the Jaws of Life to pull them apart.
Most teens make it through unscathed and for others the piercings heal over, the tats fade and life becomes the long happy journey it’s intended to be. Today that scenario is changing as teenage obesity rates climb sky-high and the scientific community grows increasingly concerned that unhealthy teen habits create irreversible damage leading to premature death.
“Childhood obesity not only has health consequences for children, but increases the risk for death in adulthood,” said Dr. Frank B. Hu, an associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Hu was the lead researcher in a study that examined the highly-regarded Nurses’ Health Study data relating to 102,400 women aged 24 to 44.
The women had provided answers to a number of questions including their weight at age 18. Researchers followed up 12 years later and found that the heavier a woman was at age 18, the greater her chances of death from heart disease, cancer, suicide and other causes.
The obesity epidemic in the U.S. is not isolated to teens. We are the fattest nation on the planet. As life got easier, and food became cheaper and more processed, we’ve all scrambled to find ways to maintain our health. We are all still learning and seeking answers for a world that is so new, even the scientists can’t predict its long-range repercussions. Why didn’t someone tell us ten years ago that saving those margarine tubs for microwaving wasn’t smart? For that matter, why didn’t they tell us light butter might be a better alternative? About the only thing for certain is that the American lifestyle is killing us.
Scientists choose their words very carefully, and epidemic is not a word to be taken lightly—think Bubonic Plague or the Spanish Influenza Epidemic, both of which claimed millions of lives. Obesity is a serious problem in the U.S. as evidenced by organizations and legislation that is struggling to contain it. That containment requires increasing exercise opportunities including stress relieving exercise, and decreasing consumption of processed foods that store themselves quickly and easily as fat.
One-third of U.S. children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are overweight or obese. Obesity in children is a risk factor for high blood pressure, increased levels of cholesterol, chronic inflammation, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, asthma and premature death.1 All this pales against the fact that obese and overweight children are the brunt of cruel teasing in school, often leading to low self-esteem and other psychological problems.
The spotlight on teen obesity lit up in 2000, when the excitement of the new millennium had statisticians working overtime at measuring how times had changed. One of the millions of statistics to come out was the fact that child obesity rates doubled since 1980, and tripled in the case of teenage obesity. Type 2 diabetes, once considered so rare in young people that it was called “adult onset” diabetes, was suddenly being seen in adolescents. The condition, now also referred to as an epidemic, can result in amputations, kidney problems, blindness and death.
The good news is that reversing the teen obesity epidemic is a top priority in America.Identifying Solutions
Last November former President Clinton said about the teenage obesity epidemic: “We need to do something about it for our children and for our country, because something like this could easily collapse our nation if we don’t act now.”
That statement was made at CNN’s first Fit Nation Summit. Fit Nation Express is an ongoing, multi-platform initiative against obesity lead by CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. In its third year, Dr. Gupta’s Fit Nation Express will once again travel around the country rallying more Americans to take charge of their weight by exercising more and eating healthier. Selected destinations include Denver, San Diego and Chicago this year.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, now a household name with his ongoing appearances on the Oprah Winfrey show and bestselling books, has founded HealthCorps® in a bold move to impact the lives of U.S. teens. Recruiting medical graduate students and other young people interested in careers in medicine and nutrition, HealthCorps® brings their class to America’s classrooms. Funded through private donations there is no cost to the school, and the young educators present in and afterschool seminars on diet, nutrition and exercise.
In the same engaging way Dr. Oz and partner Dr. Michael Roizen present important health information to millions of Americans, the HealthCorps’ young staff—some not much older than the students they teach—use a variety of methods to bring their message home. Students may engage in an exercise class, take an actual trip to the grocery store, or even touch and hold human organs to see and feel the difference between healthy and sick.
“By giving students, parents and community members the necessary tools to surround themselves with healthy options” says Dr. Oz, “HealthCorps® is working today for a healthy America tomorrow.”
Taking Aim at Soda
“Parents and health officials need to recognize soft drinks for what they are—liquid candy—and do everything they can to return those beverages to their former role as occasional treat,” says the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a U.S. consumer group. In fact, CSPI has recently petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calling for cigarette-style warnings on soft drinks to caution people of their potential health risks. They are far from alone in their campaign.
Changing the tide of teen obesity requires a combination of programs to encourage exercise, education about nutrition and disease prevention, and state legislation to provide mandatory exercise and healthy food fare in our nation’s schools.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation—a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association—reached an historic agreement with representatives of the world’s largest soft drink bottlers in 2006. Under the deal, elementary schools will only sell water, juices with no added sweeteners, and low-fat or fat-free regular and flavored milk. The drinks will be sold in 8-ounce containers. Middle schools will offer the same choices, but in 10-ounce servings. High schools will only sell 12-ounce beverages of about 100 calories and in addition to the drinks offered to elementary and middle school kids, high schools will also offer no-calorie or low-calorie drinks like teas, diet sodas, sports drinks and flavored waters.
According to the latest statistics released by the American Beverage Association (ABA), shipments of full calorie soft drinks to schools were 45% lower during the 2006-2007 school year than they were in 2004.4 Shipments of water increased by 23% that same period.
The agreement states that the industry will strive to fully implement these guidelines prior to the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year, providing schools and school districts are willing to amend existing contracts. The program is estimated to affect 35 million students across the country.
The ABA report sounds positive on the surface, but the noted 41% reduction in calories shipped into schools may not translate to a measurable decrease in weight gained. Part of the problem lies in the nation’s new love affair, particularly amongst teenagers, with energy drinks.
Energy Drinks: Teen’s New Sodas
A calorie-conscious market began clamoring for soft drink alternatives at the start of this decade. The genre’s all-star, Gatorade, was reborn in dozens of colors and flavors, and was soon taken over by dozens of new brands. On the heels of this burgeoning market for sports drinks came the energy drink.
In 2006, just as the Alliance was signing their groundbreaking agreement, America went energy drink wild. According to market researcher Information Resources Inc., energy drinks outperformed all other categories of beverages that year. Sales topped $5 billion in 2007 and insiders project it to exceed $10 billion in the U.S. market alone.
Some of these drinks pass the Alliance guidelines for calories, but insinuate a new problem for parents by adding other non-calorie, and sometimes dangerous, ingredients. Other popular energy drinks are loaded with waist-widening High Fructose Corn Syrups (HFCS) and while they may not make it to school vending machines, they reach campus in backpacks. Energy drinks are the new Starbucks: the must-have beverage for the younger generation.
Last year, several teens in Colorado Springs sought medical attention after drinking SPIKE Shooter, as did another student at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, CO. The 8.4-ounce can has more than three times the caffeine of a cup of coffee, plus several herbal stimulants.
Their label now recommends that individuals under 18 and the elderly should not imbibe; however, there is no regulation to stop kids from buying it. Even though the label recommends “newbie’s” to start with one-half can and not to exceed one can per day, many teens take such warnings as a challenge.
Several Colorado high schools have warned students and parents of the dangers, with one Denver school actually banning the drink on campus and persuading a nearby 7-Eleven store to remove it from their shelves.
A month later the scene repeated itself in Florida where four teenagers from Falcon Cove Middle School in Weston were taken to a hospital emergency room after ingesting Redline. That incident prompted talk from Broward County School Board members about a possible ban. These and other similar stories prompted a group to form called Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood which is lobbying the FDA, along with groups like the CSPI and the American Medical Association, to force food manufacturers to list the amount of caffeine on product labels. The ABA has issued voluntary guidelines asking for caffeine label information separate from the ingredients statement, but as the case with SPIKE Shooter, compliance usually occurs only when a manufacturer’s forced by public outcry.
A new energy drink aimed at teens
With energy drinks rocking the beverage industry, an Arizona based liquid nutritional supplement company called Vemma wanted to bring a competitive, but much healthier alternative to the market. The end result was Verve.
Verve uses a super-antioxidant formula as a base, has 80 mg of natural caffeine equal to about one cup of coffee, natural sugars equivalent to about an apple and a half, light carbonation, the flavor from carefully selected fruits, and hip packaging.
“High fructose corn syrup is a cheap way to sweeten drinks,” explains BK Boreyko, the founder of Vemma and the father of three young boys. “When I look at all the kids consuming all those calories – sodas, sport drinks – and I think of those poor little pancreases working overtime to process the junk, it just breaks my heart.”
To avoid consuming high fructose corn syrup and other potentially unhealthy ingredients, it is vital that youth learn to review the nutrition information on packaged foods.
In the summer of 2007, the FDA launched a campaign called “Spot the Block”, to encourage this very behavior. The campaign targets youth ages 9 to 13 and their parents. The campaigns aims to inspire youth to seek out the Nutrition Facts on the food label, understand the information it provides, and use it for making healthful choices related to their own dietary management.
As a parent, you can inspire your child to do this by urging them to look for, read, and think about the Nutrition Facts information on food packaging. You can also use mealtime and grocery shopping as a means to teach kids to read labels together and discuss healthy eating habits.