According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.
The percentage of children aged 6-11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Teenagers are not exempt. The number of obese adolescents aged 12-19 years increased from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period.
One study showed that children who became obese as early as age 2 were more likely to be obese as adults.
There are long-term consequences to being overweight or obese. Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults are more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and several types of cancer.
They are also at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.
Schools play a critical role by in supporting healthy behaviors and providing opportunities for students to learn about healthy eating and practicing regular physical activity.
Northeast Elementary Magnet School, located in Danville, Ill., recently became the first school to win a gold medal for its fat-fighting program from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which was founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation.
Many Northeast students are products of their environment. For struggling families living in a poor area of the state, one of the products of their hard environment is obesity.
The Northeast program is rigorous and everyone gets involved. Parents must sign a contract committing to the school's healthy approach. Students go to gym every day and teachers wear a pedometer which logs how far they run, walk, or bike.
The school cafeteria offers no soda, fried foods, or high-calorie desserts, sticking instead to fresh fruit and veggies and low-fat or no-fat milk. Food or sweets are never used as a reward for children, even on birthdays.
A healthy approach has even been integrated into the school's curriculum. Pupils as young as five dance to the alphabet song, third-graders learn math by twisting their bodies into geometric shapes, and fifth-graders learn to calculate calories.
In one example, a group of first graders listened intently as their teacher read them "The Very Hungry Caterpillar", a story about a caterpillar that can't stop eating. When it moved to chocolate cake and ice cream, the youngsters in the classroom gasped as if the sweet desserts were poison.
The disciplined eating habits are paying dividends at Northeast as obesity levels continue to drop. Many parents were amazed to see their children coming home from school and requesting fruits and vegetables, things they once rejected.
After hearing it had earned a national gold medal for nutrition, we're certain Northeast students didn't celebrate with a cake and ice cream party.
As one shy fifth-grade girl remarked, "We're a healthy school. We're not allowed to eat junk food or stuff like that."
By Jim Zbick