I have become increasingly concerned about the health of our young people. As we continue to see higher rates of typical adult health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and the like in children, it is appalling to know how much of this is the result of the grossly neglect attitude that we as adults have in respect to what we have allowed to be commonplace in their diets.
It’s no secret that for years, low-income communities of color have suffered as grocery stores and fresh, affordable food disappeared from their neighborhoods. But few of us stop and take note of what this is doing to our children.
Have you ever gone late to work, so you can have breakfast with your child at school to see what they serve? How about remembering the last time you took your children to the supermarket to teach them how to shop for food? When was the last time you looked around a typical corner store, paying attention to what many of our children are eating every day?
I recently came across a study that looked at the role of corner stores in our children’s lives. Needless to say, it was a sobering insight into just how poorly we have failed our children in providing guidance and protection as they learn the food habits and behaviors that will surely lead to them being unhealthy and unproductive adults.
The study by Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education revealed that for a “little more than a dollar” city kids can walk into a typical corner store and fill up with unhealthy calories of low-nutrition junk, and for many, it has become a way of life and gateway to obesity. It found that the average Philadelphia student purchases more than 350 calories on each visit to the corner store — and 29 percent of them shop at corner stores twice a day, five days a week, consuming almost a pound’s worth of additional calories each week.
In fact, according to The Food Trust, in communities that lack supermarkets, entire families depend on corner stores for food purchases. The choices at these stores are often limited to packaged food and carry very little, if any, fresh produce. Corner stores are also frequent destinations for children, many of whom stop daily on the way to and from school for snacks.
In another national survey, fat comprised an averageof 35 percent of total caloric intake in youths ages 2 to 19 years,and almost two-thirds of these youths did not eat recommendedamounts of fruits and vegetables.
A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 23.5 million people lack access to a supermarket within a mile of their homes. A recent multistate study found that low-income census tracts had half as many supermarkets as wealthy tracts. Another multistate study found that eight percent of African Americans live in a tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites. On the other hand, for every additional supermarket in a census tract, produce consumption increases 32 percent for African Americans.
Studies have shown that a good breakfast boosts not just student nutrition, but also student achievement and health, and reduces absenteeism and visits to the school nurse. This under-nutrition can affect a child’s behavior, school performance and overall cognitive development. Even when a child misses one meal, behavior and academic performances are affected. A hungry child has difficulty learning.
For a school-age child, the act of not eating breakfast can lead to fatigue and a diminished attention span. While the body adjusts to decreased blood sugar levels, the brain struggles to perform its function with a minimal supply of nutrients. Children up to the age of ten need to eat every four to six hours to maintain a blood sugar concentration high enough to support the activity of the brain and the nervous system. Most teachers can quickly identify those children who come to school without breakfast. Their heads are on their desks at 10 a.m. — the peak learning hour. This chronic poor nutrition may cause more serious learning deficits.
The effectiveness of school-based nutrition programs and services can be enhanced by outreach efforts in the surrounding community. At the very least, school personnel should be familiar with the health and nutrition resources available through local agencies. Contact can be made with the health department, community nutrition programs, health centers, local food pantries and fitness programs. Once contacts are established, parents and schools can collaborate with other community agencies to positively influence the health and nutritional status of school-age children.
Junk food is everywhere and it is being consumed by our students in record quantities. “Junk food” is food which traditionally has no nutritional value. It deprives the body of necessary nutrients and its overconsumption over time leads to obesity, medical problems and behavioral problems. Some examples are salted snack foods, candy, gum, most sweet desserts, fried fast food and carbonated beverages.
Junk food consumption is associated with various physical ailments, including obesity, Type II diabetes, heart attacks and decreased life expectancy. Because of junk food, our children’s life expectancy could be lower than our own. Junk food is also a major cause in the 23 percent of — children who are overweight. Fast food and the increasingly available category of junk food are strongly correlated to the “300 percent increase in the rate of U.S. children who are either overweight or obese,” the study says.
While there are no studies specifically linking meals eaten away from home to academic performance, we do know that poor nutrition during the school day can result in behavioral and learning problems. Chronically undernourished children score poorly on standardized tests, are more irritable and exhibit lower energy levels.
Junk food surrounds our children in a new “toxic food environment” which is made worse by a bombardment of advertisements through media directed at children. Junk foods are altering the structure and function of the human brain while increasing and decreasing insulin levels so quickly that junk food leaves students groggy in class. A child’s brain continues to develop through until adulthood; many of the foods that students eat affect the growth of critical areas of their brain. When growth is disrupted, in can cause negative behavior reactions in the classroom. Often, doctors do not seek the root of the problem (food), but instead they mask the behavioral symptoms with drugs such as Ritalin or Prozac which have their own series of side effects, all while the brain development continues to be damaged.
There are many health benefits associated with good nutrition and physical activity. Eating smart and moving more help children and youths maintain a healthy weight, feel better and have more energy. These positive health benefits have the potential to translate into academic benefits at school. Good nutrition and physical activity nourish the brain and body, resulting in students who are present, on-time, attentive in class, on-task and possibly earning better grades. As students work hard to achieve high academic standards, it is more important than ever that we provide opportunities for them to be active and eat healthy throughout the day.
Families, schools, government and communities must share the responsibility of promoting and supporting children and youth to eat smart and move more. We must save the children.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
Glenn Ellis is a health advocacy communications specialist. He is the author of “Which Doctor?” and is a lecturing health columnist and radio commentator and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health-related topics. His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine,” is due out this fall.
For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com.