School nurse Beth Realdsen saw two cases of anorexia or bulimia this year. But she and health teachers see a more common problem: overweight, out of shape kids.
A 1995 study found that over 10 percent of kids are obese and 20 percent are overweight, according to the most recent issue of People magazine, which featured a leading researcher on the subject.
"I try to emphasize that overweight, overeating is just as bad as anorexia," said Realdsen.
Here's what teachers see. More kids than ever not eating breakfast. "It's amazing how many kids don't eat breakfast. Time. That's their number one excuse," said high school health and physical education teacher Brad Skoglund.
More kids skipping lunch and having pop and a candy bar, or not eating anything."They're drinking fluids so they don't feel hungry," explained Carol Smith, the other high school health and PE teacher.
More kids holding jobs and working long hours after school. Some consider their jobs more important than school, said Skoglund, and come to school tired from work.
"Today's economy is so different," said Smith. "Anybody can get a job for $7 or $8 an hour."
And more kids getting less and less physical activity. Skoglund, Smith, and Diane Dutcher, who teaches health and PE in the elementary and middle school, said that students are less interested and less able to run long distances in fitness tests for phy. ed.
"They have a more sedentary lifestyle," said Smith. Instead of walking or biking to school, more and more kids are driving cars, as evidenced by the overflowing high school parking lot. Time outdoors being active is also cut by television, computers, and video games.
"I just don't think we do as much exercise as in the past," said Skoglund.
Ironically, while television advertisements commonly use models that are unrealistically thin, they also advertise lots of junk foods that promote obesity, not thinness. "If you eat those foods," wonders Dutcher, "how do you (stay thin)?" Parental role-modeling too often reinforces poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles, the teachers noted.
In addition to information about good nutrition, schools also provide mixed messages. "We work at nutrition, but we put pop machines in the hall," said Realdsen.
Having pop machines in the school halls has been debated locally in the past. Last week, a bill to ban this practice was presented to the state Legislature.
This debate pits nutrition against finances, as Paynesville, like other schools, uses the profits from vending machines to cover school expenses not included in the general budget.
Realdsen noted that French fries are served regularly in the high school and chocolate milk, which contains caffeine and additional sugar, is now offered twice a week at lunch in the elementary.
Dutcher noted that students only have phy. ed. every other day now in the elementary school.
French fries and ketchup, notes Dr. Tom Sult in disgust, are the two most commonly consumed vegetables these days. "That's a sad commentary," he said.
Sult, who puts a premium on diet and nutrition in his local medical practice, says that poor nutrition contributes to obesity and to future health problems.
The recommended daily servings are two to three fruits and three to five vegetables. Too often people read the goal as five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, when really that is a minimum that few people meet.
People also eat too little dietary fiber, averaging only 10 grams per day rather than the minimum of 30 grams that is recommended, according to Dr. Sult. The common diet has too little whole wheat and fresh vegetables and fruit, which also leads people to eat more.
"Nutritionally dense foods satisfy you so you eat less," said Dr. Sult.
Instead, the common diet includes lots of sugars and fats and processed food like white flour that has lost most of its nutritional value and is turned into simple sugars by the body, explained Sult. Even meat, since most animals are now grain fed, is less healthy these days, contributing to inflammation and the rise in arthritis, he said.
What's happened, according to Sult, is the human diet has changed while the human body has not had time to evolve.
He compares the long-term consequences to a car that doesn't have its oil changed. The car will continue to run for a time, but ultimately the effects will catch up. "You're setting yourself up for problems later in life," said Dr. Sult.
The body is amazingly adaptable, and it will take protein from muscles if it doesn't get enough through diet and it will take calcium from bones, said Sult.
The body uses sleep to rest and repair itself. Young people can get by with less sleep, Sult said, but their bodies won't be repaired properly without it.
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