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Time to turn the tide on obesity, expert warns

HIGHLANDS RANCH – Nutrition expert Dr. David Katz paints a dire picture of a generation that’s literally being weighed down by a burden too heavy to carry.

Some tidbits from his “Feet, Forks and the Fate of Our Children” presentation Wednesday night at Rock Creek High School:

Type II Diabetes – once commonly known as “adult-onset diabetes” – is now being routinely diagnosed in children as young as 8. Teen-agers are needing coronary bypass operations. Chronic diseases of mid-life are being transformed into juvenile scourges. And if current trends continue, the percentage of overweight or obese Americans will hit 100% within 40 years. As a nation, we are projected to spend $340 billion annually on obesity-related ailments by 2018.

“The peril with regard to the epidemic of obesity in children and the related chronic disease is quite dire,” Katz told a group of parents and students who turned out for the presentation. “The effect of eating badly and lack of physical activity will cost our children more years of life than the combination of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use. Some say our children will have shorter life spans than their parents.”

“But as with all clouds, there’s a silver lining,” he said. “We don’t need to have a great biomedical advance or the next Nobel Prize to fix this problem. We simply have to apply knowledge we already have. Using what we already know about a short list of behaviors we can control, we can reduce the chronic disease burden by 80 to 90 percent…The levers are in our hands. They’re in our feet and our forks and our fingers.”

Katz is president and founder of the Turn the Tide Foundation, a Connecticut-based organization that is developing multiple strategies for schools and families trying to reverse the unhealthy trend toward obesity in children and teenagers. The foundation is trying to figure out just how to get kids to eat right and exercise more, and how to get parents – who often are struggling with weight problems of their own – to take the situation more seriously.

“People say where there’s a will there’s a way,” said Katz. “I don’t believe that’s true. We have to both cultivate the will and pave the way. And one way to cultivate will is for people to realize that they’re endangering their children.”

Katz, a physician, professor and director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center at Yale University, is a nationally renowned columnist who regularly writes about nutrition for everyone from The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to Oprah’s ‘O’ magazine and Men’s Health. He’s a heavy hitter who normally commands a $25,000 speaking fee.

But Susan Beane, the outgoing chairwoman of the Health Advisory Council for Douglas County Schools, is nothing if not persuasive. After hearing Katz speak last year in Denver, she cajoled him into coming back to Colorado and speaking in Douglas County for free.

“He’s like the Springsteen of nutrition,” said Beane, who has chaired the council for the past three years. “He’s constantly doing research, and he really has a wonderful plan to turn around the situation we find ourselves in.”

Douglas County School District is serious about improving the health of its students and staff. “We intend to be the healthiest school district in the country by 2015,” said interim superintendent Steve Herzog.

This week, the district kicked off a healthy schools competition that includes a pedometer challenge to reward teams who log the most daily steps, a “food environment” challenge to reward schools who make it easier to make healthy food choices and harder to make bad ones, and a “Challenge of the Day” activity.

Beane says more innovative proposals will soon be rolled out by the Health Advisory Council. “One of our members is focused on sleep,” she said. “There’s been a lot of study on rolling back school start times. It may be easier for some people to have the kids start school earlier in the morning, but it’s not in the best interests of the kids.”

Katz promotes three strategies developed by Turn the Tide Foundation: the school-based Nutrition Detectives that teaches elementary children how to make smart food choices; the ABC for Fitness program, which includes ways to build in brief physical activity bursts into every classroom throughout the day without using up instructional time; and Nu-val Nutrition Quality Labeling, a supermarket-based food ranking system that gives a nutrition score from 1 to 100 to more than 45,000 food products.

He also praised LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit organization committed to reducing obesity in Colorado by promoting healthy eating and active living. Just this week, Live Well Colorado released a Food Policy Blueprint that identifies the most pressing needs and opportunities to strengthen access to healthy foods in the state.

These and other programs are among the “sandbags” that Katz says America needs to hold back the flood of obesity-related health problems. “If we do enough things right, and build them one on top of another, then the levee will hold,” he said.

Katz preaches a no-guilt gospel about the path to health. “If you are struggling with your weight, it is not your fault,” he says. “The environment is not of your devising. Don’t tell me there’s some epidemic lack of willpower.”

He took the nation’s food industry to task for misleading labeling and for its aggressive promotion – especially toward children – of high-calorie nutrient-poor foods. “The food industry needs to be regulated,” he said.

But equally important is a sea-change in society’s approach to food, he said. Cultural values need to shift.

“Plate cleaning is a cultural anachronism,” he said. “If a child has the good sense to stop eating when he’s full, pat him on the back!” Likewise, all-you-can-eat buffets need to disappear, along with bake sales.

He says efforts to find a “cure” for obesity – a pill to keep us slim – seem doomed to failure because putting on weight in the midst of plenty is what humans are genetically designed to do. For most of human history, that’s been a survival mechanism.

“For most of history, calories were hard to get and physical activity was unavoidable,” Katz said. “Now, physical activity is hard to get and calories are unavoidable.”

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