Mandates fail to teach healthy lifestyle

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Childhood obesity is a problem.

The big question lies in how to solve this particular problem, which seems to be growing worse as time passes.

Some people, including the current administration, think the solution is to remove all junk food from schools. According to a recent New York Times article, legislation will soon be introduced to do just that.

While a healthy diet is essential for preventing weight-related health problems, banning junk food is not the best way to solve this problem. Instead, the government should focus on encouraging a healthy lifestyle through choices, not mandates.

Banning junk food in schools would force children to eat well during the school day, but there’s nothing to stop them from eating whatever they want at home, as long as it’s something their parents would allow. As in most matters concerning children, parents should have more control than the government. What a child eats or does not eat is something for his or her parents to decide.

In addition, banning junk food would target the wrong age group. In elementary school, it is rare to find regular offerings of french fries and candy, whereas in high school it is common.

While it is important to encourage children of all ages to make healthy dietary choices, by the time students are in high school, they are probably already suffering as a result of a poor diet. Childhood obesity starts well before high school, and as a result, the government should focus its efforts on teaching elementary school-aged students to live healthy lives.

Instead of instituting a ban on all things that are not nutritious, schools should teach students to make healthy choices. Schools are already required to offer health and physical education classes throughout the course of a child’s education. With reforms to these curricula, students will be more likely to lead healthy lifestyles not just inside school but also throughout their lives.

Physical education classes often revolve around learning the rules of sports, and at least in my school, there was very little exercise involved. If schools instead taught students exercises they could do individually or sports like tennis where only one partner is needed, students would be more likely to exercise outside of class. The rules of basketball and football are interesting to some people, but for most students, they’ll never be useful.

Health programs could also be reformed to fit today’s needs. Since the concern here is to try to stop childhood obesity, health classes could be targeted toward that end. Rather than spending a great deal of time on communicable diseases and reproductive health, teachers could focus on nutrition. From a young age, children can learn to make healthier choices if they understand why they should. By making healthy food appealing and fun, which is entirely possible at the elementary school age, schools will encourage children to eat better without forcing them to do so.

However, while these reforms would play a huge part in reducing or eliminating childhood obesity, unless parents step in and continue where the schools leave off, nothing will change. Parents are responsible for their children 100 percent of the time, including while they are at school. If parents choose to allow their children to buy lunch, especially in elementary school, it allows the children to make their own decisions about what to eat before they are fully aware of how to make healthy choices.

Instead of buying lunch, parents should pack lunches when they can, making sure to include items from each food group. By showing their children that they not only care about what they eat, but also that they want them to eat healthy foods, parents can aid their children in making smarter choices. In addition, parents have more control over how the food is presented, and if presented in a fun way (for example, celery sticks filled with peanut butter and raisins), healthy food choices can be just as appealing as unhealthy ones.

Parents’ responsibilities don’t end with lunch, though. Healthy, home-cooked meals eaten together will also encourage children to eat well. By showing the child that food — good food — is a priority, he or she will see that food choices are important.

Ending the reliance on prepared foods and takeout will benefit children and help to reduce the likelihood of childhood obesity.

If parents and schools work together to improve the health of children and encourage a healthy lifestyle, including both a nutritious diet and regular exercise, children will be less likely to have weight problems and more likely to have better self-esteem.

A government ban on junk food in schools would not be as effective and should be avoided in favor of a plan that focuses instead on teaching children to make healthy choices.