When it comes to the war on obesity, the road to hell really is paved with good intentions. Take, as a glaring example, the state of Texas’ four-year, $37 million effort to improve physical education at high-poverty middle schools. A recent University of Texas at Austin study found that the program failed to make a dent in statewide obesity rates. But why? Let’s take a closer look.
Anatomy of a failure
Between 2007 and 2011, the Texas Fitness Now program gave public schools money to buy sports and gym equipment and promote healthy eating initiatives. One-quarter of the money was allocated for nutrition, but a much smaller ratio — just 7% of the funds in 2009 and 2010, UT researchers found—focused on helping students change their eating behaviors.
In its four-year tenure, TFN fell short of the ultimate goal of reducing obesity. While the boys and girls who participated in the program were “fitter” then they had been at the start, and could complete more pushups and a faster shuttle run, their overall health remained largely unchanged.
TFN also intended to improve student academic achievement. The thinking behind that objective was sound: research has linked increased fitness to improved cognitive ability. But the results here weren’t measurable, making the program an academic wash, too.
Why Texas Fitness Now didn’t work
Sure, TFN was a well-intentioned program. But it was doomed from the start, like similarly well-meaning programs that have been developed across the nation. While it was correct in targeting low-income areas, its method was shaky because it didn’t get at the heart of the matter: the skyrocketing obesity in lower-income areas has an environmental component that is rooted in learned behaviors.
According to a recent CDC report, almost 20% of children between the ages of 3 and 19 are obese. That’s in stark contrast to 1970s’ obesity rates, which held steady at 5.6 percent for almost a decade. What’s changed? What we eat, how we eat, what we’re exposed to, and how we’re conditioned, and that starts at day one, not in middle school.
The prevalence of fast food restaurants in low-income neighborhoods means that high calorie foods are introduced into children’s diets early in life. Childhood habits are especially difficult to break. Early exposure to high calorie foods like fries and soda not only produces obese children, but also makes it significantly more likely that these same children will become obese adults. For a lot of these folks, nixing these poor eating habits by dieting equates to eating a smaller serving of French fries rather than replacing them with a truly healthy option.
Parents can absolutely help lower their children’s risk of obesity by not introducing sugars and other high-calorie foods into their kids’ diets. But for many families on the lower end of the economic spectrum, the healthy food message comes too late in life to prevent establishing bad habits.
Doctors are now seeing evidence that these eating habits can become so ingrained that they result in epigenetic changes—chemical alterations to genes that can be passed onto subsequent generations—before our obesity programs are even introduced. That means that those tweaked genes predispose our children’s children to obesity before we get a chance to make healthy changes. And that’s the real problem.