Frito pie is part of a bigger picture

American children, like adults, are fatter than ever

Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2002

According to school nurse Barbara Walker, since Frito pie became available at Juneau-Douglas High School, students have been asking for Tums to calm the gastrointestinal storm caused by eating it.

But the health cost of a diet high in sugar, fat and salt is more than a bellyache, especially for sedentary students. It is obesity, one of the country's most pervasive and expensive health concerns, according to Kathleen Wayne, dietitian and program coordinator for child nutrition with the state Department of Education and Early Child Development.

"I don't like that that's what the school district is allowing to be served," Wayne said. "However, when profit is put over nutritional quality, this is what happens. To make a change, parents have to go to the schools, they have to be involved."

In 2000, the monetary cost of obesity-related illness in the United States was about $117 billion, according to the U.S. surgeon general. For adults, "overweight" is defined as a body mass index of 25 or higher. Obesity is defined as a BMI of 30 or higher. For children over age 12, overweight was defined as at or above the 95th BMI percentile.

BMI measures weight in relation to height. A person who is 5 feet 8 inches tall, for example, would be overweight at 164 pounds, obese at 197.

Nationwide rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in young people have increased over the last 10 years for many reasons, experts say, but especially because children consume more processed foods and are less active. Obesity is linked to a host of medical problems, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Being even 10 or 20 pounds overweight increases the chance of premature death. Diabetes, related to obesity and high sugar intake, can cause blindness, loss of limbs and death.

A study released last week by the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that 15 percent of young people between 6 and 19 were overweight, a 50 percent increase from a decade ago. Current figures for overweight teens don't exist for Alaska, but if Alaska's young people are anything like the adult population in the state, they are more likely to be overweight than the nation's population. Alaska is one of the fattest states in the country, along with Texas and Tennessee. Close to two-thirds of Americans are fat, according to statistics published in JAMA.

Wayne stresses that foods such as soda or Frito pie are "sometimes foods" that aren't necessarily bad if eaten occasionally, as long as students are active and consume more calories from unprocessed "everyday foods." The key is to have a good balance, she said. Whether students understand the meaning of a balanced diet is an open question.

In "Food Politics," diet and nutrition specialist Marion Nestle reported that only 1 percent of students surveyed in 1997 ate diets that followed the food pyramid recommended by the government, and that children and adolescents were getting half their calories from added sugar and fat. From her experience in the schools, Deana Darnall, who works at the high school health clinic, thinks these trends apply in Juneau.

"School nutrition? There isn't any. That's my biggest concern," she said. "And, there is no excuse for there to be pop at all in schools."

A link between student success and nutrition has been proven, Darnall said. A student who drinks a few sodas a day and doesn't eat breakfast, for example, is less likely to perform well on standardized tests now required by the federal "Leave No Child Behind" education initiative, she said.

The vending machines at JDHS dispensed enough Coke and Pepsi drinks to fill an average-sized backyard swimming pool last year. In total, they contained the equivalent of more than 1 million teaspoons of added sugar. The school sold significantly less milk, less than two dozen containers daily, and all of it was chocolate.

"Sodas are of concern because of the sugar content," said Brad Whistler, dental officer with the state. "Sipping on sodas all day promotes tooth decay due to sugar content, and the acidity can lead to decalcification in teeth."

The broader issue, Whistler said, relates to nutrition. Studies have shown the caloric intake from soda and sugared drinks like SoBe can make up more than half the daily liquid intake for some children and can contribute to the rising level of teenage obesity. Some school districts have banned soda. The Alaska Native Health Board's "Stop the Pop" campaign encourages students and elders in the Alaska Native community to limit their consumption.

Sean McBride, the director of communications for the National Soft Drink Association in Washington, D.C., said that over-consumption of soda may be a health concern, but demonizing or banning the beverages are not the answer.

"I think the most important thing that the schools could do is to improve the amount of nutrition education, and provide for daily physical education in schools," he said. "If you get into banning or restricting, it gets into the forbidden-fruit syndrome, where you are not teaching children to make wise decisions."

As McBride mentioned, another contributor to obesity along with diet is lack of exercise. High school students are required to take three semesters, or a year and a half, of physical education classes that meet three times weekly. The district is in the process of updating that curriculum, which was created in the late 1980s to meet new government standards.

"If you look at the national standards, (you might want to suggest) daily P.E. every year," said Stephanie Hoag, curriculum coordinator for the school district. "That would involve hiring a lot more P.E. teachers, so you can see it is not a simple thing."

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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