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Munching our way to the fat farm
Children best hope in state search for leanness

By M.J. Ellington · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Children who back away from bad food choices because they develop better eating habits at school may be the state’s best hope to slow its cycle of obesity and chronic health problems.

Dr. Don Williamson, state health officer, said the state Department of Education did a significant thing when it adopted new policies in 2005, banning most soft drinks and setting nutritional guidelines for foods cooked or sold on public school property.

“I think the youth numbers are our greatest hope for the future,” Williamson said about a national report showing Alabamians are among the fattest people in the country.

With release of the 2007 “F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America,” last week, Williamson said Alabamians need to make changes. Without change, he said, the state faces a future with more serious medical problems, higher individual health insurance costs and spiraling demands on limited public health resources.

“The real problem with obesity is that people only recently began to understand that it is a medical problem, not just a cosmetic problem,” William-son said. “Obesity may be the second leading cause of death in America.”

Bright spots appear in the statistics.

In the fourth annual “F as in Fat” report by the Trust for America’s Health, Alabama had the third-highest number of overweight adults and the 11th-highest number of overweight 10- to 17-year-olds in the country.

The figures do not include post 2005-data, reflecting how Alabama’s children measure up since school breakfasts and lunches got leaner and school snacks took a healthy turn. Results from those changes will take a while to register.

The report noted Alabama’s decision to restrict access to less healthy food and drink choices at public schools.

Only 16 other states have fat and fried food restrictions in school lunchrooms as strict as Alabama’s.

Only 21 other states restrict access to certain snacks and sugary soft drinks in vending machines and school sales.

When Alabama’s state school board in 2005 adopted policies to wean lunchrooms from popular fried choices for children’s meals, it expected controversy. State Superintendent of Education Joe Morton said there was less protest than expected.

Morton said the healthy eating initiative began as a unified way to provide policy answers to questions local school officials kept asking.

“It seemed like every couple of weeks, we would get another question that was just one piece of a puzzle,” Morton said.

The board also set guidelines banning or restricting access to fat and sugar-laden snacks and soft drinks in public school vending machines and school sales.

Long-term effects

A committee of experts developed recommendations to change foods and drinks available in schools and also guidelines on physical activity, another critical part of Morton’s puzzle. He also believes the changes will have long-term health consequences in Alabama.

The most stringent guidelines affect the youngest children, the group that Williamson said is most likely to take good food and drink decisions learned at school into adulthood.

Williamson said the long-term effects of the school board’s decision could change the course of eating and health habits for generations.

“There is value in offering choices that change behavior,” he said.

“Most of us who drink diet soft drinks once drank sugared soft drinks and thought the others tasted funny. Now ones with sugar taste funny.”

Williamson predicted if the school policies are successful, the state’s youngest children will reach high school weighing less and with fewer risk factors for diabetes, high blood pressure and other weight-related problems.

If fewer Alabama children are overweight in high school, Williamson said, it is not too big a stretch to hope that in 15 to 20 years, the state may have fewer overweight adults with big health problems.

Diabetes risk

One big concern about obesity is the increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Diabetes patients have higher risk for heart disease, blindness, amputation and related health consequences, and often have a higher need for public health or Medicaid services, Williamson said.

Laura Segal with the Trust for America’s Health said Southern states are taking a lead in changing how the country eats and exercises. Because many of the most overweight states are in the South, she thinks leaders in those states are more conscious of the need.

“As a country, we can’t have a healthy economy and compete globally if our health costs continue to spiral,” she said.

Alabama’s health officer said he hopes people will choose to make weight and exercise needs a personal priority.

He’d also like to see more public emphasis on lifestyle issues that make healthier choices easier for adults and children. If none of these choices succeed in helping Alabamians of all ages slim down, Williamson said, their pocketbooks might.

“You will see more companies have incentives to lower health risks and insurance rates,” Williamson said. “You will see surcharges and higher rates for employees who do not modify their behavior.”

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