Fueling Childhood Obesity: TV Time, School Lunch and Gender Does Make a Difference

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    A new study due to be published in the September issue of the journal, Pediatrics, finds that the behaviors most often linked to obesity among middle-school age children are school lunch consumption and viewing more than two hours of TV daily.  School lunch consumption raised the risk of obesity in boys by 29% and in girls by 27%.  But there were some gender-specific differences in risk factors for obesity.  Girls, who drank two servings of milk daily, were less likely to be obese, while boys who played on a sports team were more likely to have healthier weights.  Milk consumption in boys did not make a difference.

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    Experts recognize that if kids are sitting and watching TV, precious “movement” or fitness time is being sacrificed.  Then add in the typical foods that until recently were the staple of public school lunches nationwide, and it’s not hard to understand why these two behaviors are contributing to kids’ weight issues.  When data from the study was compiled, it also included cardiovascular profiles of the 1,714 sixth grade student participants, from 20 schools in four communities in southeastern Michigan.  The children classified as obese had poor cardiovascular profiles with low HDL or good cholesterol levels, high triglyceride levels, high blood pressure and longer heart rate recovery times, which specifically indicates low fitness levels. 


    A more serious conclusion from this and other studies is that based on the health profile of these children, which represent a nationwide trend, heart disease begins in childhood and adolescence.  It’s also important to acknowledge that the typical student who depends on school lunch may already be overweight or obese, or have additional risk factors for obesity, because of family history, cultural mores, and socio-economic status.  With regards to gender differences, the milk consumption on the part of girls may translate to one or two fewer sugary drinks per day being replaced by milk.  The study also revealed that even screen time differed by gender, with boys engrossed in video games while girls were more likely to use a computer.  Being on a sports team appears to reduce the risk of obesity in boys, but not in girls.  One theory is that girls may not be willing to sweat and reach a fitness level that would nudge weight.


    If you have been tuned in to changes sweeping the school lunch program nationwide, then you know that the menus are being reconfigured, with availability of more fruit and vegetables, salad bars in selected locations, more whole grains, less fried foods, the new option of Greek yogurt, and availability of 1% and fat free milk in lieu of whole milk or flavored milks.  If kids willingly embrace these changes, with the portion control and calorie limits also being implemented, then we may begin to see a downward trend in obesity rates.  But changes on the home front are also needed, with a shift to healthier foods, more fitness and less screen time (TV, computer and video games).  The big question that continues to trend: Can we get parents to model the kinds of habit changes needed to reduce rates of obesity at home, while healthier changes occur at school?  What do you think?


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    Amy Hendel is a health professional, journalist and host of Food Rescue, Simple Smoothies and What’s for Lunch?  Author of Fat Families, Thin Families and The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, she tweets health headlines daily @HealthGal1103.  Catch her past guest appearances on Marie! at www.Hallmark.com and other local and national news and talk shows


Published On: August 15, 2013