Raising a healthy child includes educating that child on proper nutrition and physical activity in order to grow into healthy adults. Poor nutrition and obesity continue to be a problem in the United States. In fact, the most recent reports indicate that 12.7-million, or 17 percent of our children, ages 2-19, are obese. Unfortunately, despite these alarming statistics, formal health education in schools is lacking.
The National Center for Education Statistics says for each grade from kindergarten through eighth, only 50 percent of all schools have district or state requirements for students to receive nutrition education. Only 40 percent have these requirements for ninth and tenth grades; and about 20 percent for eleventh and twelfth grades. That simply is not enough. The reality is healthy nutrition needs to be discussed regularly throughout life. As adults, we forget. Understandably, our kids forget.
And you have to ask, is the nutrition education that the students ARE receiving really healthy. The 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, requires schools across the country to meet certain requirements for food and drinks served on campus. It was aimed at combating the childhood obesity epidemic. But take a look at the menus of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where my children attend school. Fortunately, ketchup isn’t considered a vegetable anymore, but you will still find fruit juice on some of the menus. Obesity experts and professional societies warn that fruit juice is not much better than soda.
So is it any wonder that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. The United States Department of Agriculture has taken steps in an effort to slow the numbers. The Smart Snacks in School regulation went into effect in 2014, requiring all foods sold a la carte at schools during the school day to meet nutrition standards, which limited sodas and candy bars in vending machines on high school campuses, at least during the school day. Although some are still there and open for business shortly after the bell rings.
Nutrition is one part of a student’s health education. Physical education is also a must. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that young people aged 6–17 years participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. But that’s the problem! It is just a recommendation. There is no national mandate for schools to offer physical education. So, the numbers are dismal and rarely achieve these targets.
The National Center for Education Statistics found that only 17 to 22 percent of public elementary schools offer daily PE classes. 22 percent of the elementary schools scheduled physical education just one day a week. And most of these classes run 30 minutes or less. What about older kids? The Centers for Disease Control reported that only 27 percent of high school students surveyed had participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity on all 7 days before the survey, and only 29 percent attended physical education class daily.
Parents can’t assume that schools are going to teach their children how to make healthy choices that will extend into adulthood. Parents must assume this responsibility. The consequences of low physical activity and poor diet are simply too risky, with obesity being the first adverse side effect – leading to increased risk of developing, heart disease, diabetes or cancer, as well as premature death.
Of course, health education in school goes beyond nutrition and physical education. Children also receive information about disease prevention, physical growth and development, and safety. As they get older, they will also learn about reproduction, drug and alcohol abuse prevention, and maybe even some first aid. HealthyChildren.org says the goal of such education is to promote healthy behavior and life skills.
This is National Health Education Week, an opportunity to educate K-12 students on health. If students adopt exercise and nutrition habits in school, they can carry them into adulthood. Children will learn that the human body is amazing, but it requires attention and proper maintenance.
Dr. Adrienne Youdim, MD, is a well-recognized expert in the areas of weight loss and nutrition, bariatric medicine, and preventive medicine. Dr. Youdim is the Director of the Center for Weight Loss and Nutrition at the preeminent Lasky Clinic in Beverly Hills.