The last week of September was an alarming week of obesity-related news. First, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released the results of its "F as in Fat" report, projecting that half of U.S. adults will be obese by 2030 unless Americans make drastic dietary changes. Then, The New York Times reported that, according to data published by the University of Illinois at Chicago, white people lacking a high school diploma are experiencing sharp drops in life expectancy, reversing generations of progress to extend life spans. There are many possible reasons, including higher rates of smoking and a spike in prescription overdoses, but the skyrocketing rate of obesity is a known suspect.
Then came the release of the most recent report from Mission: Readiness, an organization of about 300 retired generals, admirals and senior civilian military leaders who are trying to spread the word that obesity, and specifically childhood obesity, is nothing short of a dire national security risk. "Still Too Fat to Fight" takes on one of my pet peeves: cheap junk foods that are readily available in our schools. According to the calculations of Mission: Readiness, students in the U.S. consume almost 400 billion calories from junk food sold at schools each year.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in high schools — especially those in lower-income communities — where students routinely turn down their free or reduced-price breakfasts or lunches in favor of sacks of salty snacks and high-sugar beverages. And though grade-schoolers usually can't get away with waiving their federal nutrition guideline-monitored meals, they often have a wide variety of cakes, cookies, candy and chips available to add to them in the cafeteria or from vending machines.
The report features some cringe-worthy statistics: One in four young adults is unable to serve in the military because of excess body fat, and even many of the ones who do manage to enlist are at high risk of injury. The military's health insurance system, according to Mission: Readiness, spends "well over $1 billion a year on treating weight-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease," in addition to the cost of musculoskeletal injuries resulting from inadequate physical fitness and low levels of bone density that may be related to the plunge in dairy intake and a corresponding rise in childhood consumption of sodas and sugary drinks over the past 35 years.
The Mission: Readiness report takes great pains to finger a wide array of junk foods available in schools as the main culprit in this costly epidemic, and is accompanied by a letter to Congress asking legislators to keep nutritional standards high for foods and beverages sold to students outside of the federally reimbursed school meal programs. But what you won't find in the report is a full indictment of sugary beverages. According to a Mission: Readiness spokesperson, the group's estimates attempted to exclude all sugar-sweetened beverages because of the efforts Big Soda has made to curb marketing their high-sugar drinks in schools. During a teleconference the American Beverage Association held last May, President and CEO Susan Neely told reporters that over the course of the last three years ABA's voluntary efforts to curb sugar in schools has resulted in a 97 percent decline in full-calorie soft drinks in schools, and marketing of soft drinks to children younger than 12 decreased 96 percent since 2004.
In view of recent data establishing a strong causal link between limiting sugary drinks and a reduction in childhood obesity, this is a big step in the right direction.
So there is reason to be optimistic. We can reduce childhood obesity, we just have to keep pressure on the makers of all the goodies that entice our children when they're out of our reach. At least we're not alone -- if Uncle Sam says we're all at risk when our kids have full access to junk at school, there's a good chance more people will begin to demand that schools put a stop to it.