The U.S. is facing an obesity crisis.
Dozens of studies have reliably linked obesity to many of today's worst diseases, including heart disease and diabetes.
And for the first time in history, this generation of children is expected to die younger than the last. If we don't thwart the obesity crisis... any child or grandchild born today faces an ever-diminishing life span.
Despite ongoing efforts to tackle it... the problem just seems to get worse.
That's because the government's recommendations for healthy eating are based on flawed principles. Despite dozens of published studies showing that high-carb, low-fat diets lead to weight gain and disease, the government still recommends we stick to obesity-producing eating regimens.
Take New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He's made it his mission to fight obesity in the classroom.
In fact, he's something of a health champion. He's successfully enforced a smoking ban in almost all indoor public spaces. And he's proposing to extend this ban to beaches, parks, and plazas. He has banned trans-fats in restaurants and required dining establishments to post calorie counts. He has even been in the news recently for seeking to prevent recipients of food stamps from using them to buy soda and other sugared drinks. So far so good.
But when it comes to combatting obesity in the classroom... he seems to be striking out. The programs he's put in place don't seem to be working. New York City kids are still just as fat. And at risk for all those health problems.
So the question is... what's wrong with his health program? And what can you learn from it to help you and your family get trim and cut those health risks?
We've gone undercover to bring you all those answers ...
In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg fought for and gained control of New York's public school system. At that time, two out of every five of the city's school kids were overweight or obese.
Bloomberg took on this issue and initiated a broad-ranging eating and exercise program to tackle the problem.
However, a recent city report states that 40 percent - or more than 250,000 young students - are still overweight or obese. In fact, about half the school kids in some city zip codes are too heavy.
So what went wrong with Mayor Bloomberg's plan for the schoolchildren of New York?
Buying into the Low-Fat, Whole Wheat Myth
During Mayor Bloomberg's time in office, several changes were made in school cafeterias.
An executive chef was appointed. Whole wheat bread, salad bars, and little plastic bags of sliced New York state apples were introduced to the lunch menu.
White bread and white flour hot dog and hamburger buns were replaced with whole wheat. Whole milk was cut and replaced with low-fat white and chocolate skim milk.
These changes are directly in line with the government's recommedations for a healthy diet. And yet these changes didn't work. In fact, New York City kids have gotten heavier! So what went wrong?
The key flaw with this diet is that it cuts calories gained from protein and fat and replaces them with grains. Over the past 20 years, many studies have shown that consuming lean protein and healthy fats are vital to good health.
On the other hand, a diet containing an excess of grains – white or brown – is the quickest route to obesity and disease.
So the composition of the school lunch menu is one major reason why Mayor Bloomberg's plan has not worked.
What's Really Going On with New York City's School Lunches?
Another possible reason for the failure of the mayor's plan is lack of proper implementation. A recent Daily News survey showed that school lunchrooms in NYC still serve processed foods. Big on the menu are chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, and pizza. A toasted cheese sandwich on oat bread had more than 30 ingredients. These included the sweetener high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
HFCS is often made from genetically modified corn starch, which is chemically treated to turn glucose into fructose. The USDA allows HFCS to be added to soda, crackers, jams and jellies, soup, pickles, ketchup, relish, and chocolate milk. It is also used in deli items like coleslaw and potato salad. It is even found in bran flakes and "healthy" granola bars.
"It's the major driver of the obesity epidemic," says Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D. "It has disruptive effects on metabolism, because the body doesn't utilize fructose well. Humans have never before consumed it in such quantity."
Back to Processed Foods, and an Apparent Failure to Implement...
Processing foods removes essential nutrients while adding unhealthy preservatives and fillers. Processed foods also contain extra sugar, fat, and salt added to make up for flavors lost during processing.
The Daily News survey found that one of the lunch pizza options had more than 25 different ingredients. They included azodicarbonamide. That's used to bleach foods and as a defoaming agent in plastic production.
Another proposed mayoral goal for city cafeteria menus was to increase servings of fresh fruit and veggies and to add salad bars. The "salad bar" is often little more than lettuce and pickles, according to students. At Public School 42 in the Bronx, "fresh" fruit means prepackaged apple slices. Frozen veggies are served only a few times each week.
It doesn't stand up to much scrutiny.
"Its more window dressing than real change," says Susan Rubin, a nutritionist and founder of the advocacy group Better School Food.
"Just cutting the calories and fat doesn't make this processed food healthy," says Rubin.
Clearly the mayor's ambitious plan has lost something in translation. In fact, serving city school kids high-calorie and low-nutrient processed foods makes them more obese and increases their risk for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
So why are processed foods in New York's public school food program? And what can be done about it?
To understand why, you need to know a little more about Ann Cooper. She's also known as the "renegade lunch lady."
Processed Food in School Lunches...
The Truth According to Ann Cooper
Chef Ann Cooper is the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley (California) Unified School District. She is an outspoken activist for serving freshly prepared food to school kids. She battles daily to keep her kids healthy. And insists on involving them in every stage, from growing their own food to cooking it.
In her TED talk, "Ann Cooper talks school lunches," Chef Ann states that in the U.S. children "are being fed to death." She asserts that this is a social injustice. She believes that their unhealthy diet has to do with how the government promotes food.
Highly subsidized corn, soy, beef, pork, and chicken are being pushed into the school food system, simply to support various commercial interests.
Can that really be true?
Conflicts of Interest
According to Chef Ann, the USDA has a huge conflict of interest in the way it operates. It buys surplus food such as beef, pork, chicken, soy, and corn from farmers and large agricultural companies. It does this at cheap rates to keep them in business.
It also allows these farmers to use antibiotics and hormones. Both end up in the meat you eat.
These tainted sources of animal proteins are then turned into cheap, mass-produced processed foods.
Another division of the USDA is charged with feeding school children nutritious food via the National School Lunch Program.
The USDA then turns around and sells these processed foods to schools via subsidies. And nutritionally inadequate foods find their way on to school lunch menus.
A simple solution indeed. And one that places the health of America's children at great risk.
The Economics of School Lunches
The Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1946. This act created the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). It was designed to prop up food prices by absorbing farm surpluses while providing cheap and free food to children through school subsidies.
The National School Lunch program spends $8 billion annually. It feeds roughly 30 million children each year.
Companies like Kraft, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, M&Ms, and others spend $20 billion each year marketing their non-nutrient foods to kids.
A yearly budget of $8 billion boils down to $2.49 per child per lunch. However, two-thirds of this amount goes to pay overhead costs; so less than a dollar a day is actually available to pay for each lunch.
Nutrition directors say that this does not cover costs, so they rely on processed commodity food from the USDA and on extra income from the sale of low-nutrient processed foods like chips, pizza, and burritos in "à la carte" programs.
Because of this chronic lack of funds, cheap, high-carb, high-calorie, and low-nutrient processed foods are served daily to school kids instead of the nutritious foods they need to grow and develop properly.
Children go to school to learn; by eating this food, they learn unhealthy eating habits that serve them poorly in the future. What's worse, this diet may be their fast-track to obesity and an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
The First Generation of Americans Who May Die Younger than Their Parents
Chef Ann quotes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as saying that of the American children born in the year 2000, one out of every three Caucasians and one out of every two African Americans and Hispanics will have diabetes in their lifetime. Most before they graduate high school.
This means 40 to 45 percent of them could become insulin-dependent within the next decade.
In 2007, with nine percent of kids having Type II diabetes, an estimated $200 billion was spent on diet-related illnesses annually. The huge projected increase in the number of insulin-dependent children will place a big burden on the already struggling U.S. healthcare system.
In fact, the CDC believes these children might become the first generation of Americans who die at a younger age than their parents. Simply because of what they eat.
If this is true, then Chef Ann is right. These children are indeed being "fed to death." They're beginning a lifetime of illness. And facing an early death.
So What Can Be Done for America's School Kids?
It is often said that we are what we eat. Our country's school children clearly need a radical change in their diets if they are to have a long and healthy life. The first step toward this goal would be to remove all forms of processed food from cafeteria menus and replace them with fresh, locally grown food prepared from scratch.
Further, vending machines serving chips, sodas, and other processed foods should not be permitted on school premises.
Equally importantly, our school children should be served a low-carb, high-protein diet.
This kind of diet combats weight gain... but just as importantly, it increases your overall health.
Many studies over the years have shown that such a diet has significant health benefits. It causes weight loss, while actually increasing muscle mass. It reduces triglyceride levels and protects against cardiovascular disease. Finally, it also guards against insulin resistance, which is the first step on the road to getting diabetes.
A significant barrier to these goals includes the USDA's conflict of interest between the farmers and agricultural companies it subsidizes, and the children it is supposed to not only feed, but nourish.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act
In the recently passed Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the House has set the goal of "improving the nutritional quality of all food in schools." The Act gives the USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods sold in schools. That includes vending machines, the "a la carte" lunch lines, and school stores.
In other words, the Secretary of Agriculture and the USDA are now the sole authorities for setting nutritional standards for school lunches. Unfortunately, this more than likely means more of the same for America's school kids, as the conflict of interest issue has not been dealt with at all.
Ultimately the only way to help your children is to take control yourself.
When it comes to diet and health... the real key is individual responsibility. It's your job to make sure your child or grandchild eats well all the time. Not just in school. And the best way of ensuring your child eats well in school is to eat meals packed at home