The problem with obesity: are our lifestyles setting us up for shorter lives?

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Shawna R. was 14 years old and weighed 270 pounds when she found out she needed to lower her blood sugar. “The doctor told me if I didn’t start to get healthier, I would become diabetic in the next couple of years,” says the Haydenville, Mass., sophomore. Shawna’s extra weight had bothered her since fifth grade, but her doctor’s words pushed her to action. “That really scared me.”

Shawna isn’t alone. “Over the last 20 years, we have seen a radical increase in obesity,” says S. Bryn Austin of Children’s Hospital in Boston. In fact, three times as many teens are overweight today as were about 25 years ago.

Your Body on Fat

Fat cells store and release energy into the bloodstream, along with hormones and other compounds that help regulate your body’s systems. When you take in more calories than you burn, fat cells start to swell and multiply. More fat requires more blood, which strains your circulatory system. Excess weight around your joints and windpipe make it harder for you to walk and breathe.

Ballooning fat cells also cause your body’s normal chemical signals to go haywire. Too many fat cells make the brain less responsive to signals that the stomach is full. They also interfere with the way the body processes food and release chemicals that can damage the heart, liver, and muscle cells. Doctors are seeing more teens with serious health problems. Some include high blood pressure, fatty liver disease (a buildup of fat in the liver), type 2 diabetes, and signs of artery hardening–all conditions that can lead to heart disease and stroke.

That spells trouble for many overweight and obese teens. Last year, a nationwide study found that at least one-third, or 7.5 million teens, are so out of shape that they are at significant risk of developing heart disease. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a 30-minute video called The Biggest Generation, which warned that today’s children may have shorter life spans than their parents.

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Food: You’re Surrounded

Some experts lay part of the blame for obesity on technological advances. “People used to have to work pretty hard to get their food. Now we have to make an effort to be physically active,” says Dianne NeumarkSztainer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. At the same time entrepreneurs were creating more types of fast food, people also started moving less, driving more, and watching more TV. One in every two kids walked or biked to school 30 years ago, but today, just one in eight does.

Being sedentary (not getting enough physical activity) isn’t the only reason people gain weight, though. Food is a major culprit. Just in the past 20 years, the range of convenience-food choices has exploded. Yes, McDonald’s and Dairy Queen existed in the 1980s, but not Starbucks, Chipotle, or Jamba Juice, let alone food courts or vending machines in schools.

And food companies want your money. Roughly half of all U.S. advertising directed at children and teens is for food, with estimated sales exceeding $27 billion in 2002. In a study of Chicago-area schools, Austin and her colleagues found that fast-food restaurants were “three to four times more concentrated around schools” than those that were randomly located, she says. Given these factors and today’s busy lifestyles, it’s no wonder that teens are eating out more than they used to.

That’s not a good thing. Not only are convenience foods higher in calories and saturated fat than home-cooked meals, but their portion sizes also have ballooned. For example, 20 years ago, a cheeseburger had 333 calories. Today, it has 590. Overall, boys and girls are eating an average of 243 and 123 more calories per day, respectively, than their parents did. Consider that 3,500 calories make up a pound of fat, and you can see how easy it is to gain weight.

Nobody knows that better than Jahcobie C. Last fall, at 5 feet 10 inches and 483 pounds, the Boston native may have been one of the heaviest 15-year-olds in the world. “I would eat 10 McChickens, five apple pies, three large fries, and a Diet Coke,” Jahcobie says. “The most food I could get for the cheapest amount of money is what I would eat.”

Not Weight-ing Any Longer

For Shawna and Jahcobie, the turning point came when they each won a scholarship through Louie’s Kids, a nonprofit organization that sends teens to weight-loss camps and schools. Shawna attended the month-long Wellspring summer camp in Canton, N.C. Now 15, she has shed 90 pounds and reduced her risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Jahcobie spent eight months at the Reedley, Calif.-based boarding school Academy of the Sierras, where he learned a lot about healthy weight-loss strategies. Currently 16, Jahcobie has lost 170 pounds and plans to lose 115 more over the next 18 months.

Both teens say the experiences taught them how to eat well, how to make exercise a part of their daily lives, and how to let go of food as a comfort device. As Jahcobie and Shawna lost weight, each gained a healthy new relationship with food.

Who’s Overweight?

Researchers use a measurement called body mass index (BMI), a ratio of weight to height, A person’s BMI is compared against those of other people the same sex and age. Then it is ranked to determine what a healthy weight is.

“BMI is not a perfect indicator and should be followed up with a doctor or nurse;’ says Virginia Chomitz, senior scientist at the Institute for Community Health of Cambridge, Mass, For instance, a 15-year-old boy who is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 150 pounds would fall into the at-risk category if he gained 20 pounds. But if the weight is muscle mass, that’s a good thing. See the BMI calculator that’s designed just for kids and teens at the Centers for Disease Control and Preventlon’s Web site at apps.nccd.cdc.gov/dnpabmi/Calculator.aspx.

Discuss

* How has the number of overweight teens changed since the 1980s? (Three times as many teens are overweight today)

* How are modern lifestyles and environments affecting waistlines? (People get less exercise in their normal daily activities and have more sedentary pastimes; the reach of fastfood outlets is expanding, especially around schools; young people are increasingly the targets of food-related advertising; and convenience foods are served in bigger portions and are more fattening.)

* How do Jahcobie’s current attitudes toward eating compare with his old mind-set? (Jahcobie used to consume large amounts of fast food because it was inexpensive; now be has learned to think of food as fuel for his body.)

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DO

Across the country, school and health officials are trying different approaches to curb teen obesity. Arkansas officials weigh students and send home information about their body-mass index; California officials are raising the nutritional standards of school meals; West Virginia officials are purchasing dance video games for all public schools; and a group of soft-drink manufacturers has agreed to stop selling all but low-calorie soft drinks in schools within a few years. Have your students research those and other initiatives to combat obesity through schools. Then have them write position papers on whether they think the methods will work and why.

Resources

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a new set of obesity guidelines (www.aap.org/obesity).

Overeaters Anonymous (www.oa.org) is a 12-step program that helps people who have compulsive eating problems.

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