Many different ingredients go into the unpalatable problem of childhood obesity.
Caree Cotwright, an assistant professor of foods and nutrition at UGA, delved into this problem with the more than 50 people who attended an Athens Science Café in October.
Cotwright started the evening off with a performance of “What’s Best 4 Me,” a rap she wrote to teach children about healthy eating and exercise. Audiences clapped and stomped, as they sang along to the refrain, “Eating good in the neighborhood, and making healthy choices like I know I should.”
After getting the audience warmed-up, Cotwright showed two videos that tackled obesity differently: “Rewind the Future” by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), which uses shock value to deliver its message, and “Starting Early” a video by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which shows how preschoolers are bringing healthy habits home after learning about them in school.
One audience member questioned the CHOA approach of using shock value to influence people to eat healthier. Another said he was encouraged by the CDC video, which showed how kids could impact their home life.
Cotwright said that, while she usually goes for more positive ways of getting the message across, she does appreciate how scare tactics get people talking. CHOA, she said, “wanted people not to be afraid to say this is a problem we need to address because sometimes we kind of tiptoe around it.”
She says that while it’s still unclear which of the two methods is more effective, it’s important to realize that different messages reach different people.
Then Cotwright guided the conversation through topics ranging from genetics and gardening to the role of schools as they relate to childhood nutrition.
One person asked if people are born with a “sweet tooth” or a “fat tooth.”
Cotwright said there is evidence that both genetics and behavior play into a person’s risk of getting a disease, but nothing is conclusive. However, she said, there are people who want to eat more.
“I say that I have the ’I love to eat’ gene, but I also love to fit in my jeans,” Cotwright said to audience laughter. “So I have to curb that.”
Gardening can also affect what children want to eat. She said kids need to know that produce does not come from Aisle 6 of the supermarket.
Cotwright said gardening helps children increase their love for fruits and vegetables because it gives them a sense of ownership, making it more likely that they’ll want to eat them.
Schools also play a big part in how children view food. Children eat a lot of their meals in schools, so officials have to think about what they serve, Cotwright said.
She said teachers and parents also have to be aware of local school wellness policies and be role models for children. Each agency participating in the National School Lunch Program is required to have a school wellness policy that aims to promote students’ health and nutrition.
For example, instead of serving sweets on a child’s birthday, teachers could have “healthy celebrations,” such as reading a child’s favorite book.
Cotwright noted several UGA programs that are aimed at curbing childhood obesity. For example, in Colquitt County, children are taught healthy eating habits and physical activity, and encouraged to share what they’ve learned with their families and the community.
“Don’t ever underestimate the power of the child in this fight against childhood obesity,” Cotwright said.
Closer to home, a multidisciplinary after-school enrichment program in Clarke County elementary schools aims to improve math and reading ability through increased physical activity. A partnership between UGA and the Clarke County School District, the program involves 60 children in two elementary schools.
The South has the highest rates of obesity in America, said Cotwright. In Georgia, 30 percent of adults, and about 13 percent of children are obese. Cotwroght also noted that overweight preschoolers are five times more likely to be overweight as adults than children within the normal weight range.
”That’s definitely something we have to conquer,” she said.
But there are strides, she said. Childhood obesity rates have slightly decreased among preschoolers from low-income families.
“If we can do it there, we can do it all across the board,” Cotwright said. “We’re just going to have to work together.”