Any parent who has fixed a nutritious school lunch only to find it untouched in a backpack the next morning will be heartened by new federal rules that will take effect in schools nationwide in the fall of 2014.
That's when laws will require school vending machines, stores and "a la carte" lunch menus to provide only healthful foods.
There's a plan for turning lives around, one child at a timeWhen the 17-year-old came to us for help, he told us he weighed 400 pounds.
He was wrong. That was just the maximum weight on the scale at his doctor's office. A quick trip to a hospital told us he weighed 521. Once we knew the true size of his problem, we got to work.
I became involved with the obesity issue after watching my 550-pound father, Big Louie, die of a stroke. I formed a nonprofit group, Louie's Kids, to work with children ages 10 to 18 to help make sure they didn't go down the road my dad painfully traveled. When I started out in 2001, we were working with teenagers whose weights began with the number 1, or in the worst cases 2. Today we're not even shocked to see numbers that start with 3 or 4.
But kids don't have to be that heavy to suffer the problems that come with obesity. Many of those we work with are 20, 30 or maybe 50 pounds overweight -- and they have to deal with the stereotypes that they are lazy, unintelligent, unable to keep up with other children. They come to us because they want to turn their lives around.
We've helped hundreds of these kids accomplish just that. Most of those who succeed in losing weight and keeping it off have some things in common.
First, they have caring parents who make a commitment to eat dinner together. When children sit down to have meals with their family, it changes their relationship with food; we have seen it work time and again. Second, they learn to eat real food, cooked by a real person, not something that comes in a cardboard box. Third, no sweet drinks. Most overweight kids ingest a disproportionate amount of their calories in sweetened beverages, which feed the need for more sugar and wreck their metabolism.
Finally, successful children find a physical activity they love and do a lot of it. So we offer after-school programs for students and hold family workouts in parks; we buy kids bicycles or memberships at the YMCA or other rec centers. We try to expose them to a little bit of everything. Maybe they'll fall in love with Tae Bo or kettlebells or hip-hop dance classes or yoga. We give every kid a pedometer and say the day is not done until it clocks at least 10,000 steps.
To encourage better eating habits, we teach families how to shop at the grocery store. We show them which aisles to stay out of and which will give them the healthiest bang for their buck.
We also connect some kids with cognitive behavioral therapists -- and if we can't do so in person, we do so via Skype. Often overweight children are dealing with some underlying problem, such as bullying or abuse or the death of a parent. We've found that kids are more likely to come to grips with their physical problems once the psychological problems are treated.
Scientists tell us that 80 percent of obese children are likely to become obese adults. Sure, our health care system can hold these people together -- controlling their diabetes, replacing their knees and hips, holding down their blood pressure. And costing taxpayers a fortune.
But I have seen young people escape that destiny. I'm working with a young man who has lost about 70 pounds and is still dropping. He scored 1486 on his SATs and is off to college. It looks as though his future will be bright. He has proved the stereotype wrong: He's smart, capable and ready to empower himself.
And there's the fifth-grade girl who was about 30 pounds overweight. She would not speak unless spoken to, and habitually looked down at the ground. We put her into group therapy to try to change her behavior around food, and gave her coaching in nutrition and physical fitness. She has lost about 20 pounds, but the biggest change is her sense of self worth. Her principal told us he was amazed to see her raising her hand in class, confidently asking questions. She smiles and greets other kids.
Our message to parents: Intervene now if you think your son or daughter is eating the wrong things. Get your child up and moving. I have seen how hard it is to go through life weighing more than your body can bear. I've also seen that it doesn't have to be that way.
So if a child hits the cafeteria line for pizza, the cheese on that slice will be relatively low in fat and sodium and the crust probably will be made from whole grains. And snackers will find nuts, granola bars and water in vending machines instead of candy bars, potato chips and sugary sodas.
A 2001 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that children in the school breakfast program, many of whom eat school-provided lunches, consume as much as half their calories each day at school. A 2009 study showed that sugar-sweetened beverages add 112 calories to the average elementary school student's daily diet.
"Give us a couple of years and you will see the effects across the country of not just school meals, but of all food sold in schools," said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services for the USDA, which regulates school breakfasts and lunches. "I know it can make a difference."
The new restrictions were mandated by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which in recent years has been responsible for increasing fruit and vegetables and reducing fat, sodium and sugar in the breakfasts and lunches served in school cafeterias. Now the government is moving on to what it calls "competitive foods": a la carte items such as burgers and pizza, vending-machine fare, and items from snack bars and school stores. Much of that never has been regulated before.
The new rules will not affect snacks sold for fundraisers or at after-school events such as football games or plays.
Under the new standards, released in June to take effect in September 2014, items must have fewer than 200 calories, less than 230 milligrams of sodium, less than 35 percent of their calories from fat and less than 35 percent of their weight from sugar. A la carte entrees must meet the same sugar and fat requirements but can have as much as 480 milligrams of sodium and 350 calories.
Allowable beverages include water, low-fat and fat-free milk, fruit and vegetable juices, and fruit and vegetable juices diluted with water but containing no sweeteners. Gone will be candy bars, high-fat chips and sugary beverages, at least during the school day. In coming years, the federal government will further restrict sodium levels in school foods, Concannon said.
States, municipalities and school districts have long been free to develop their own standards for competitive foods, and 39 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some restrictions, according to the School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 people who work with school food.
"We're a little worried about the complexity and a little worried about the cost" of the new rules, spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner said. "But we share the same goal" of curbing childhood obesity.
One difficult adjustment for schools has been the revenue they lost when junk food was removed. Students buy less from vending machines now, there are fewer machines and some schools lost bonuses that beverage companies were paying to keep machines in schools, said Marla Caplon, registered dietitian, licensed nutritionist and supervisor with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.
At one typical high school in Montgomery County, for example, vending-machine revenue fell from $21,055 in fiscal 2005 to $4,289 in fiscal 2013, she said.
"Schools have lost a lot of money, but they're on board," Caplon said, adding, "It's all about the health of the kids."
Research has begun to show the benefits of regulating competitive foods. A 2012 study of 6,300 students in 40 states found that children in states with strong laws governing the nutrition content of competitive foods in schools gained less weight over three years than students in states without those laws.
"Laws that regulate competitive food nutrition content may reduce adolescent BMI change if they are comprehensive, contain strong language, and are enacted across grade levels," the researchers concluded in the journal "Pediatrics."
Kathryn Henderson, director of school and community initiatives for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said progress has been "modest." But the policy makes sense, she said.
"We know we are very much influenced by taste and we like those fatty, sugary foods," she said. "It's hard to have to make those choices every day. It's better for our students that we offer choices that support healthy eating all around."