Thursday, April 14, 2005

Parents, schools have role in keeping kids healthy

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (April 14, 2005): Today’s children are so unhealthy, they may not live as long as their grandparents have.

Dr. Steven Kirsch, a family-practice doctor in Scarborough, gave that message to a group of parents at a presentation on youth obesity and wellness sponsored by the Wentworth PTA last week.

Kirsch and Dr. Lisa Letourneau, another Scarborough doctor involved in the Maine Youth Overweight Collaborative and a founder of the Scarborough Wellness Initiative, told parents how the culture has changed to encourage obesity in children and adults, and gave some ideas on how to change personal habits to stay healthy.

“It’s not only for our youth but for us and older adults as well,” Kirsch said. He showed data of adult obesity by state, and a picture of a Time Magazine cover from 1995, with the headline “The Girth of a Nation,” saying Americans have been growing more and more overweight every year.

“It’s not easy modifying your diet,” he said, urging people to eat based on their level of activity. “Your energy in, if it exceeds your energy out, you’ll end up gaining weight,” he said.

On the “energy in” subject, he talked about what he called “portion distortion,” a phenomenon over the past 20 years in which foods have increased in size and calories. For example, a “regular” size bagel has doubled in size and calories in the past 20 years, and a “small” portion of French fries has nearly tripled in size and calories, Kirsch said.

He said many people know they should be having so many servings of different types of foods, but few know what a serving really is.

“The serving size of a piece of meat should be about the size of a deck of cards,” he said. A serving of vegetables or fruit is about the size of a baseball, and “if you want a serving of sweets,” that should be the size of a domino.

Kirsch noted that kids today have less “energy out,” playing video games or watching TV more than young people did in the past.

“As a kid, all we used to do is play baseball as a group in the neighborhood, and we were riding our bikes everywhere,” Kirsch said.

Letourneau said all is not lost, and encouraged the parents in the room to work to improve their health and their children’s.

“It’s everything. It’s not just one thing,” she said. “Until we make it easier to make good choices (rather) than bad choices … we’re going to be fighting an uphill battle” to get people to change their personal behavior about eating and exercise.

She asked parents to think about what they do that might unconsciously encourage their kids to eat unhealthy foods. For example, she said, many parents bring sweets for kids to eat after sports competitions.

“If we’re at a sporting event, why bring it?” she asked, noting that many athletic areas have advertising for sodas, candies or other foods, including on scoreboards.

She said the snack bar by the main high school fields often has unhealthy foods, and suggested it stock apples and other better snacks.

“I guarantee it. If that’s all the kids have to choose from, they will buy it,” she said.

Letourneau also lamented the economics of many school lunch programs, including Scarborough’s, which must be financially self-supporting. That effectively forces them to sell sodas and sugary foods to make a profit to support sales of healthier foods.

Letourneau said there are bright spots. She has heard of students complaining about long lines at the salad bar at Scarborough Middle School, forced them to wait or to choose other foods to get to class on time.

And several fifth-grade classrooms are tracking their exercise through a program called “Maine in Motion,” in which each student uses a pedometer to measure how many steps they walk each day.

“Kids who are more active in school actually learn more,” Letourneau said. Many young children play sports in town, but once they get to the middle school and have to try out for teams, very few continue athletics, she said.

Letourneau said the solutions to weight problems start at home. “When an issue is identified with a child, it’s not about the child; it’s about the family,” she said. “The whole family has to be involved in choosing a healthy lifestyle.”

Parents can encourage their kids to follow what Letourneau called a 5-2-1-0 program, in which kids eat five fruits or vegetables a day, watch no more than two hours of TV or video games, do one hour of physical activity and drink zero sodas. “Juices can be just as bad…Water water water is good,” she said.

To change the “culture of overeating,” she urged parents to take the lead. “We are absolutely role models for our kids.”