Kudos to Prince George’s County Del. Jay Walker for reintroducing his long-sought “Student Health and Fitness Act,” (HB 393) which would mandate a minimum of 90 minutes of physical education each week during school hours and 60 minutes of recess in elementary school.
Those who follow this space may recall my very first offering on July 1, 2015, entitled “There is More to School Than Reading, Writing or Math.” That commentary outlined the importance of physical activity and free play to cognitive function in the developing brain. Fitness training is an investment in children that will yield immediate dividends.
Ample research has since demonstrated the veracity of this claim. So, if improving academic and cognitive performance is your stated goal, call your representatives and let them know you support Walker’s eighth attempt to get this more-than-timely bill to the governor’s desk.
As for the problem of childhood obesity, however, it may be time to discuss another aspect of our academic program: the school lunch.
Aerobic activity is essential to the human metabolism in innumerable ways. However, exercise appears to play a minimal role in weight loss. Ironically, those who exercise intensely in the hope of staving off weight gain frequently find themselves instead suffering orthopedic wear-and-tear that makes them less likely to exercise at all. That can create a vicious circle.
The modern world is experiencing a pandemic of the so-called “diseases of civilization,” among them: heart disease, diabetes and obesity. In his recent tome “The Case Against Sugar,” author Gary Taubes explores the problem of the comparative absence of such diseases in the few hunter-gatherer societies that still exist in modern times. He also enumerates the incidents of such societies adopting the “Western Diet” and promptly experiencing a precipitous decline in general health.
In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan indicts the over-consumption of processed foods in our diet as contributing to the pathology of chronic diseases. He is a proponent of the farm-to-table movement and suggests that foods with long shelf lives were profit-driven inventions that, like so many other products, were marketed to consumers without a full appraisal of the risks involved. He urges his readers to eat “real food,” Read that: food that has not been denuded of fiber and micro-nutrients.
Foods that are good for the corporate bottom line tend to be terrible for the human waistline.
The food industry is not innocent in all of this. A few years ago, liquid fat solidified by the addition of a hydrogen atom (aka hydrogenated trans fat) came under scrutiny. It was found that no safe dosage of trans fat exists and that any exposure at all – even small amounts – increased the risk of clogged arteries and heart disease. Years passed before they were banned.
The superheating of vegetable oils to make french fries has been shown to generate carcinogens. The use of antibiotics in industrial animal husbandry may be contributing to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Summoning up memories of big tobacco, big sugar funded “research” to prove that sugar, overall, is benign to human health. Dissenting results were buried.
In “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease,” the endocrinologist Dr. Robert H. Lustig labeled high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as one of the “Four Foodstuffs of the Apocalypse” since the chemical by-products that metabolize in the liver are identical to those produced by alcohol. HFCS is omnipresent in the American diet, and Lustig believes it to be a slow-acting toxin that leads to insulin resistance.
We need to see a change in American dietary habits to reverse the “diseases of civilization.” While dietary habits are learned behavior, they are also reinforced by the insulin rollercoaster that is induced by a diet rich in sugars and other refined carbohydrates. Every teacher can bear witness to the afternoon sugar crash that occurs about 90 minutes after the school lunch.
The average walk down a school lunch line reveals preprocessed floury, fried and sugary fare that fills an empty tummy but leaves the body craving nourishment. Can we allow empty calories to trigger the formation of empty minds?