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SPOKESPERSON: In, out, down. Take it faster. In, out, down.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lashay Herbert is trying to shake an unhealthy future. If the 12-year-old doesn’t lose weight now, she faces a time bomb of health problems.
SPOKESPERSON: Okay this is weight in pounds.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Weighing in at 286 pounds, Herbert has joined a kids and fitness program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
SPOKESPERSON: Calories for 15 chips?
CHILD: Uh, 150?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Here, nutritionists teach families what makes a healthy diet.
WOMAN: Nine, ten…
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s all part of an effort to turn back the tidal wave of childhood obesity. Dr. Francine Kaufman is a pediatric endocrinologist for the hospital.
DR. FRANCINE KAUFMAN: We have an incredible problem with childhood obesity, and it’s right here, right now. There is an ever-increasing number of children who are overweight and obese, and this is a tremendous healthcare problem.
SPOKESPERSON: You’re doing great.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the last two decades, childhood obesity rates have doubled. Now, 10% to 15% of all teenagers are too fat, and doctors are quick to point out that being overweight is not just a cosmetic issue; it’s an enormous stress on the body’s heart, bones, and lungs.
DR. FRANCINE KAUFMAN: It’s not going to be people having heart attacks and strokes in their 70s and 80s; we’re going to bring that down in the obese population to maybe the 50s and the 60s, or even maybe the 40s, and then be able to have that consume all of our healthcare dollars.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Kaufman says children who struggle with obesity have a genetic predisposition for weight gain, and African American and Hispanic children have a higher propensity than other groups.
DR. FRANCINE KAUFMAN: This gene has been there for millennia. It’s expressing itself now because of the tremendous shift in our lifestyle– in what we eat, in how much we eat, and in how much activity we have.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fatty foods are everywhere. According to the Centers for Disease Control, fast food now accounts for 40% of the average family’s food budget, and some families are unaware of its high fat and sugar content.
DR. FRANCINE KAUFMAN: When we sit those families and those children down and explain to them, it’s like we turned on a light. I mean, I think a lot of them lacked just the basic information. You know, you think you go to McDonald’s, it’s a nice place; get a couple of Happy Meals and some of these now super size meals… I think some of our families are just glad to be able to feed their families. They don’t understand that that meal is laden with fat and overburdened with calories and not the best thing to eat.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s a scenario that Dorothy Lacey understands. Lacey is Lashay Herbert’s grandmother and her primary caretaker.
DOROTHY LACEY: The fried chicken and all that kind of stuff, it’s easy to find. And when you’re a working parent, you know, it’s hard to… When you come in, you just… As long as you just grab something. Well, now I learned that, you know, I don’t want to grab anything anymore like that. I just, you know, make sure that a couple of meals are prepared ahead.
DR. FRANCINE KAUFMAN: Let me look at your ears.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But by far the most alarming problem doctors are seeing is the number of children now diagnosed with Type II diabetes. Formally considered an adult-onset disease, almost half of all new cases of diabetes diagnosed in children are Type II, and obesity is thought to be the primary culprit.
DR. FRANCINE KAUFMAN: Do you know what we see back there? We see all the blood vessels that tell us about diabetes.
GABRIEL GARCIA: That?
DR. FRANCINE KAUFMAN: With that, yeah.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Diabetics like nine-year-old Gabriel Garcia face future health risks like damage to the eyes, the heart, and kidneys. Every day, Garcia must balance his blood sugar with insulin.
GABRIEL GARCIA: I used to eat pizza. I used to eat hamburgers, French fries, and soda– a lot of soda– like, junk; like, um, chips, corn nuts, M&M’s, Snickers– all of that, and I miss it.
WOMAN: With cheese and fries.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Under fire for fueling fatty diets are school cafeterias. Many school districts have made deals with fast food chains like Taco Bell. In this southern California school district, fast food has helped to triple sales.
BILL CALDWELL: I’m going to go down here and look for Taco Bell food.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Bill Caldwell, director for food services for Capistrano Unified School District, says fast food– in particular, Taco Bell– isn’t unhealthy food.
BILL CALDWELL: The most popular item that we sell at Taco Bell is the bean and cheese burrito. That is an extremely healthy food: Less than 30% calories from fat, high in protein, high in fiber.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Caldwell says it fits into the very busy schedule of today’s teenagers.
BILL CALDWELL: Frequently they get here for a class period before school starts at a 6:45; they go through till lunchtime. At lunchtime, they may be on a committee or some of those extracurricular things that they have to do, so they need to grab something and run and eat it during that committee meeting, whether it’s the chess club or the student leadership group or something like that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Caldwell also thinks that too much emphasis on obesity ignores other eating disorders.
BILL CALDWELL: Frankly, in our school district, we are equally worried about anorexia. We look at some of the models that we see, some of the role models that we see on television today, and certainly here, it’s equally or even more so a problem with anorexia and bulimia here… We have around here.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But in Los Angeles, childhood obesity has taken center stage. A recent study showed 40% of elementary-aged students in Los Angeles public schools were obese or at risk of becoming obese. And here at Los Angeles’ 42nd Street Elementary School, changes were made. A salad bar was created, and it has been a terrific success, with at least half of the students choosing salad over hot dogs and traditional hot lunch fare. Money for the program came from a grant from the University of California. Pediatrician Wendy Slusser headed the project.
DR. WENDY SLUSSER: Children who are obese have… They are discriminated against within their own social structures. They also have low self-esteem. And then of course, an obese child has a much higher risk for being an obese adult, and obese adults have been found to be discriminated in the job market and also in college admission process.
WOMAN: Create a shape using your bodies, your arms, your legs.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: At 42nd Street Elementary, a healthy environment extends beyond mealtime. As part of the same grant money, the school brought in physical education experts to show teachers how to get kids to be active.
WOMAN: Skip. Skip.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The program, called Spark, gives teachers ideas for games that require little or no equipment, but get all the kids moving at once. The program is seen as an important step in the war against weight gain. According to the Centers for Disease Control, daily physical education classes are vanishing across the country. 42% of schools had them in 1991, but by 1997, that figure had dropped to 27%. 42nd Street’s principal, Laverne Van Zant, says society’s current push for high test scores has de-emphasized fitness.
LAVENRE VAN ZANT: Many of the things we have to do on a daily basis– teaching reading, teaching math– take priority. And with all the other state mandates and trying to raise test scores, PE doesn’t fall at the top of the list. But I truly believe having a good body will generate a fit academic mind.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Exercise at home has dropped too. Many children spends hours watching television.
DOCTOR: Can you hold your arms out for me?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Tom Robinson says the amount of television children are watching has become an unhealthy condition. Robinson is a pediatrician and Stanford University researcher.
DR. TOM ROBINSON: As many as 20% to 25% of the calories certain kids that we’ve been studying eat during the day are being eaten in front of the television set.
TEACHER: Yesterday you did… We talked about the negative, the bad things about watching too much television, right?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: So Robinson developed a curriculum to get children away from their TV sets.
TEACHER: We know why it isn’t good to watch too much, right? Yahuya?
YAHUYA: People will say, “come on and play outside; you’re just staring at the TV”; I don’t listen to them.
TEACHER: It sounds like you could miss out on some good things, right?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This school in Daley City, California, was one of his model projects.
TEACHER: Today we’re going to talk about productive activities that we can do instead of watching television. What’s a productive activity, Michael?
MICHAEL: Play sports?
LITTLE GIRL: Help your friends or family do things?
LITTLE GIRL: You can play… Play with someone… With some of your friends.
DR. TOM ROBINSON: What we found was at the end of seven months, at the end of the school year, that kids in the school that received the curriculum actually gained about two pounds less then kids in the comparison school, which is a very large difference for normal kids, normal growth in kids. And in addition, they gained nearly an inch less in their waist size.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Studies like Dr. Robinson’s have made their way to legislatures across the country, as the health concerns of overweight children have begun to grab the country’s attention.