The Other 60 Percent

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.”

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”