Wednesday, October 13, 2010

thoughts on childhood obesity


It’s like the giant elephant in the room that everyone knows about, some are trying to corral, and others are completely avoiding.

Since beginning work on an obesity slash chronic disease prevention grant, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about childhood obesity…and I have to say that there are no easy answers. One thing that most Americans could improve upon is consumption of vegetables.


This recent article by Jane Brody in the New York Times highlighted the fact that only 26% of Americans eat 3 or more vegetable servings per day. She called for responses to this problem.

Here are some things that I think play a key role:

  • time: It takes time and effort to plan a vegetable-focused meal vs. purchasing a pre-made or prepackaged meal. At the end of the day, many Americans are simply too exhausted to put effort into cooking a batch of quinoa or making stuffed green peppers. We live in a society where instant gratification is the norm, and unfortunately, this translates into quick fixes for meals.
  • education: Many Americans have no idea how to properly cook or otherwise prepare vegetables. Children are progressing into adulthood without learning valuable cooking skills, which makes preparation of vegetables pretty intimidating.
  • accessibility/economic concerns: Many children receive 2/3 meals at school, but have you seen some of the food offerings lately? No wonder children are not excited about eating vegetables.


So what can we do? Considering all of these barriers, I think a national campaign to improve vegetable intake needs to be launched. It's a very tricky situation because many industries (beef, dairy, etc.) feel very threatened by the government encouraging Americans to focus on a plant-based diet (and also hold or are linked to key positions in the FDA and USDA). But, it's time we start focusing on what is best for Americans, healthwise.


School lunch programs should be an increased focus. Many studies are showing that obesity concerns begin in childhood, and this is prime time for us to be proactive. Something must be done to even out the distribution of funds between districts to equalize access of healthful food.


What are your thoughts on childhood slash adult obesity?

To me, it’s a very multifactoral issue that is not going to be solved overnight (and maybe not even in a decade). Not a very comforting thought, right?!

Unlike this quinoa corn chowder, which is so comforting and delicious that you will not be able to eat just one bowl {I dare ya}.


quinoa corn chowder {the savvy vegetarian)

  • 3/4 cup quinoa
  • 1-2 T olive oil
  • 2 medium potatoes
  • 16 oz pkg frozen corn kernels or 4 ears fresh corn
  • 4 cups vegetarian soup stock or water
  • 1 cup chopped green beans
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 1/2 lg re pepper, diced
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, diced
  • 2 thin slices fresh ginger, diced
  • 1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded & chopped
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano leaf
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt & pepper to taste

Soak the quinoa for at least 15 minutes. Rinse and drain. Heat olive oil on medium low heat in large Dutch oven or soup pot. Sauté garlic, ginger, celery, & jalapenos for 6 minutes. Add potatoes, green beans, and red pepper and sauté for 5 minutes. Add spices and soup stock, bring to a boil, cover and simmer 20 minutes. Add fresh or frozen corn and cook 5-10 more minutes.

I know that this post is more of a long rant and involves large blocks of text, which I find super annoying when blog reading. But I’d love your feedback, especially as I’m writing a school nutrition program, I’d love to know what kind of school lunches are out there, and how you feel we can improve upon the nutrition status of Americans.



  1. i agree that it's going to be a long process to turn the childhood obesity trend around. i think the biggest thing is education in schools because that's where kids tend to spend most of thier time. and from a YOUNG age. if kids know what healthy food is really early on then it's what they're familiar with and used too. it's just unfortunate that it's hard to shape adult attitudes and the home environment will be extremely difficult to change

  2. Things that work in my family and that I like in our school system (we are in an upper middle class district, so we are very lucky):

    -Garden Club- they have a garden and learn recipes and crafts to do with their harvested veggies, my daughter LOVES it
    - Subsidized Exercise Classes- my kids do tae kwon do 3 times a week for $6- it is an amazing deal and the only way we would afford it. They also offer jump rope, run/walk club, and various little free clubs.
    -The school gives the kids rewards for tracking their daily activity levels and they get prizes for averaging 60 min a day

    at home:
    -we allow junk food occasionally- this is crucial so they don't gorge behind our backs...they get to pick their snack and savor it. It is funny because lately they actually pick things like strawberries and pistachios for their "special treat" when they get the pick of ANYTHING in the store!--also this helps differentiate junk food from normal food and the appropriate time and emotional state to eat it

    My belief is that school lunch programs are changed by PARENTS, not from policy pressure. The administrators will only act on things they are getting heavy support and interest for, they don't have time to be innovative. Our schools have great lunches, but it is because the parent groups have worked closely with the district the last 5 years to make the changes slowly over time (white to wheat, organic produce, meatless Monday).


  3. children obesity is the real concern worldwide, even asian countries began to have children obesity. I think it's partly of misconception (parents think they're giving good nutrition to their children by feeding them a lot of meat and as reward of good studies, they'll take them to KFC or pizza hut, McDonalds). In US, I think it's more of a problem of economic cost and convenience.
    The problem is worldwide but I think the source of the problem is different, therefore, government actions should be different too.

  4. I have so many thoughts on this issue, it could take up numerous blog posts. First, what you are doing for this grant sounds wonderful. I know that children and adults are much more likely to eat vegetables once they aren't intimidated by them anymore. It sounds strange, but vegetables really can be intimidating, especially since there is always something else that we have access to, which will take much less time and effort to prepare (and of course, these are typically the unhealthy items). However, I have found it helpful simply to introduce adults and children to canned and frozen veggies as a quick and convenient option. While they might not be ideal (at least not the canned goods...) they still count, and are better than not eating any at all.
    I agree that this epidemic will take at least a decade to "fix". It does sound long and tedious, but this didn't happen in a year, it happened over a period of about 20 years, slowly. So that's how long we should expect to wait to start seeing major changes.

  5. I certainly agree with all 3 of those factors that prevent people from eating healthfully. Also, I know my brother (who is very overweight) is worried that healthy food will taste terrible. Believe me, I've spent years trying to convince him otherwise!!

  6. This is a really tough problem to tackle. It starts with what you learn to love to eat when you are little. So few children have control over what they are fed, and not all parents are aware that of what is best to feed their children nor do they necessarily have the time - and I am sympathetic to that. I wonder if Sesame Street can have a veggie monster instead of the cookie monster. If parents can just spend one day a week taking their children to the farmer's market. If anything I think it starts with the idea of getting comfortable with the broad range of veggies, which hopefully leads embracing them in meals.

  7. I definitely agree that there are many facets to childhood/adult obesity and that no one thing is going to fix it overnight. Due to people/families being "too busy" to cook, they eat out all the time, which doesn't present healthful food options to kids, and that's what they get used to eating. I love the HealthCorps program (and wish I worked for them) where they go into high school and teach healthy eating/living/fitness to the students. I think programs like this would be great in elementary schools because young minds are so absorbent.

    Kids don't eat healthy because they don't know how! Making healthy foods fun for kids ("ants on a log") is how you get kids to eat them. Getting them involved in making the food is even better because kids are proud of things that they accomplish. Letting them mix up a big bowl of chopped veggies (with lots of different colors) is something that is fun for them and gets them in the kitchen and away from the video games. Of course, you need to target parents in this situation because they're the ones in control.

    My mom is an art teacher at an elementary school, and it is interesting to see how some things have changed. Students are no longer allowed to bring in treats for their birthday, which was something I cherished as a little kid.

    As a camp counselor, I was shocked at what some of the campers brought for lunch...eight year olds had cans of soda! Soda was "treat" when I was little, and it was reserved for when we went out to eat (which wasn't that often) or on holidays (Christmas dinner). We could have milk or water otherwise.

    Ahh this is a lot of babble. I would be interested to hear your opinion on the idea that America is becoming "genetically fatter" and therefore it's not really our fault that we're obese because that's what our genes are doing to us. I think it's an excuse, but that's just my opinion and not really based on any research.

  8. When my daughter was in first grade, it was the first opportunity for her to have hot lunch. It was relatively inexpensive, I think $2 a meal. Each month we would be given a menu, and on the back was the nutrtional information.

    It was horrible - most lunches were in the 700-900 calorie range, and between 40-50% fat!

    Another factor is that our kids just aren't as active as my generation - growing up we had 1 television with 7 channels, and it was a big deal when I got a walkman at 16!

    With computers, Hulu, Facebook, etc. - kids just don't move.

  9. i think i eat a family of 4's weekly vegetable servings in one day! i think it's great recipes like that soup that make veggies more appealing to families! especially when they're filling tasty and can be made in one easy pot!

  10. I eat sooo many vegetables! I love love love my veggies!

    I had corn chowder once at this irish pub and it was so good! But since I gave up dairy, I haven't been able to find a chowder that didn't have cream in it. I think this recipe would be the perfect substitute!

  11. I had a huge comment on this a couple days ago and it got deleted when I submitted it. Now I will try to recreate it!

    Childhood obesity...and obesity is like the elephant in the room. There's a push for doctors to talk to patients about their weight, but it's a touchy subject so many don't mention it. While it is their place to look out for the health of their patients, shouldn't we be taking responsibility for it ourselves? It's become acceptable to be fat and it's not acceptable to talk about someone being fat. As a nurse, I look at it more from a health standpoint than from an appearance standpoint...being overweight leads to so many health problems! Diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, extra pressure on your joints, just to name a few! Most people are unaware that they are at risk for these, or they take a long time to develop so they don't think about it. Drives me nuts.

    It also drives me nuts that we are allowing this to happen to our kids, and it's not really their fault. Children learn from adults, and we're doing a horrible job of teaching them. Sure, everyone is busy, but it's important to teach kids how to eat healthy and be active. I love the idea of the HealthCorps program (and I'm a little upset I'm not a part of it!) where adults go into high schools and teach students about fruits and vegetables and fun ways to be active! This would be a great thing to have in elementary school since young minds are like sponges. Teaching kids FUN ways to eat foods (ants on a log, anyone?) is definitely a step in the right direction, but just getting kids INTO the kitchen would be great. Kids like to help out and are proud of things that they've done, so they're probably more likely to try something if they helped make it. They could mix up bowls of (pre-chopped) vegetables in fun colors or sprinkle cheese over the top of veggie tacos or something.

    Plus, I think that changing school lunches is SO important. Have you seen the blog ?? It's gross what we try to feed our kids. (Well, not "our" kids since I don't have any....but still.) No wonder kids don't eat vegetables, I wouldn't either.

    I think physical activity is often overlooked in America these days, as more and more kids spend time in front of video games instead of out playing tag. I remember I used to spend weekend afternoons rounding up my friends to ride our bikes around for hours...coming home only because it was getting dark! Those were some of my best memories, and to this day I still love playing on a playground.

    I think there's so much to do and, sadly, people don't want to put money into health promotion. While it's cheaper in the long run, there's more money in fixing people after all of this has caused them chronic illness. So sad.

    I'd be interested in your opinion...I've heard some people say that America is becoming "genetically fatter," so people now have less control over their weight. Making it "not their fault" because they're "pre-disposed" to being that way. I don't really believe in it and I think people are just looking for excuses, but I am blessed with good genes and a love for running, so I don't really need an excuse. Have you heard anything about things like this? What do you think?

  12. Great looking chowder.

    I agree with all of your points, and yes, this is a multifactoral issue and there are a lot of variables. Many things need to change, it is not one thing or another. Time is a huge factor and I think people really need to relearn how to prioritize and balance their lives. We continue to add things in that we just don't have time for, but we feel obligated to take on. I think one thing that could help would be helping people learn to plan for the week. Encouraging people to buy in bulk to cut down costs and to have non-perishable staples on hand. I would love to see more grocery stores and community centers have more cooking demos. Right now many parents are in that generation where their parents got away from home cooking so they did not really have a chance to develop those skills. now they are unable to pass those along to their kids, so if more people can learn basic skills, these can be passed on to kids.

    One suggestion I always make to parents is to let their kids be part of the meal planning process. Let them explore the produce section and find interesting looking fruits and veggies. let them help with basic prep work. They you have "buy in" from the kids and they are more likely to eat more fruits and veggies. Then them discover the quinoa in the grocery store and ask about foods. Parents should not just try and hurry their kids along. I hate when I see a kid show curiosity in a new food and the parent is on the phone or just pushes them along. I have actually seen this happen. I think parents need to also get active with their kids and not just on their own.

  13. you're totally right...its unfortunate that the big companies will stand in the way of positive changes because it will affect their profits. and with kids being so easily affected by advertising it's hard to change how they have been influenced. ive recently learned about jamie oliver's school program and think this is probably the most effective way to help kids learn about healthy and get them to eat better.

  14. Great post Emily. The facts regarding the American diet is always alarming to me. I know for a fact it is more work to feed my family fresh foods, but it is so worth it. Getting the kids involved in the prep makes for good family time too. The recipe looks delish.

  15. First of all, I totally bookmarked this because quinoa corn chowder sounds ahhh-mazing!!

    And I enjoyed reading your thoughts on childhood obesity. I think education and nutrition knowledge plays a large part... along with the desire to do something about it.


  16. it's so weird to me: when i was a kid in the 80's, i was chubby and in the very small minority. now, unforunately, it's almost normal. the thing is though, when i was chubby, it wasn't due to all the stereotypical reasons. i WAS active, i didn't drink pop, and we never had snack food in the house. i can only assume it's because our meals weren't the healthiest. i guess the way to beat childhood obesity is to get the parents to make healthy cooking a priority.


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