Encourage healthy eating habits in children

By Staff
Rep.Ronald Grantland, Guest Columnist
There is a big change in our schools this year. But this change isn’t in the classroom; it’s in the lunchroom. If you work in Alabama’s public schools or have school-aged children, you have undoubtedly seen or heard about the changes. With the start of the new school year, many schools across the state have begun serving healthier school lunches and have eliminated many vending machines that serve sodas and candy.
Unfortunately, the changes had to be made. A recent study revealed that our state has the second highest rate of obese people in the nation. Nearly two-thirds of Alabamians are overweight or obese, and obesity causes a substantial social and economic cost to our state. Last year, Alabama spent $293 per person for health care costs related to obesity, the ninth highest amount in the nation.
But the trend doesn’t end with adult Alabamians. Many of our state’s children are either overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. The fact is that overweight children are much more likely to develop serious health problem later in life. In fact, over 60 percent of children age five to 10 who are overweight are at risk for developing some type of heart disease
in their lifetime. Plus, type two diabetes, stroke, and even certain types of cancer have all been linked to high excess body fat. If this trend continues, our state’s children could be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
In response, State Commissioner of Agriculture Ron Sparks established a joint task force with the State Health Department to combat the problem. First, the committee implemented a change in school meals. Now, school meals must meet the standards of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends no more than 30 percent of an individual’s calories be furnished from fat and 10 percent or less from saturated fat. Many schools are now reducing the amount of fried foods served, and are not allowed to purchase new fryers with education dollars. If fried foods are served, the portions have been significantly lowered to meet standards.
School lunches must also meet the standard of furnishing one-fourth of the Recommended Dietary Allowances for protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories. Most importantly, the school lunches must average meeting these levels on a weekly basis.
The joint task force also recommended that that many schools eliminate unhealthy vending machines, especially among elementary aged children. Currently, all vending machines in elementary schools are only allowed to contain either water or 100 per cent fruit juice. The process of phasing-out or phasing-down vending machines is also taking places at Alabama’s middle schools and high schools, where vending machines are required to contain 50 percent diet sodas. Many schools across the state have implemented a “fruit break,” where children are encouraged to enjoy a healthy snack of fruit and water, instead of the traditional candy bar and soda.
However, all the changes in our schools don’t mean much if there isn’t a change at home as well. We are fighting a losing battle if our children come home and stuff themselves full of foods high in fat and sugar, no matter how healthy they eat during the day. Plus, it’s always important to set a good example. Children are much more likely to engage in healthy eating habits if they see their parents doing so.
First, try your best to serve healthy foods. In the fast-paced world of today, it’s easy to grab fast food or cook a frozen meal, but often those fast food or frozen meals are high in calories and fat. Try serving non-fried meats and health side items. The Department of Public Health encourages Alabamians to “eat the rainbow,” and to include a variety of fruits and vegetables. Also, try to get outside and be active. Whether it’s playing a sport, participating in some type of outdoor activity, or simply taking a nice afternoon stroll, any exercise is better than none. Plus, it’s something nice that the entire family can participate in and can be fun for everyone.
The changes have already begun at school, and hopefully will be fully implemented in the coming months. But the changes must come at home, too. So as the stifling heat slowly abates, try your best to encourage exercise and healthy eating for your entire family.
Your spouse, your children, and most importantly your own body, will thank you if you do.

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