Oklahoma City, state leaders respond to growing problem

Certainly, the numbers can tell the story. But at this point, are statistics really necessary? Just look around: Oklahomans are obese.

Young and old, short or tall, a large number of us simply carry too much weight. Of course, we know the equation to maintaining a healthy weight is simple: Eat less, expend more. Yet take unlimited food choices, mix it with portion sizes that are out of whack, combine with a sedentary lifestyle, and you have a recipe for obesity.


The far-reaching effects of obesity are being felt across the spectrum, from the increase in related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes " once almost unknown but now appearing in young people " heart disease and hypertension, to the associated rise in health care costs and increasing absentee rates at work and school. In financial terms, according to The Oklahoma Academy, a nonprofit organization that concentrates on public policy issues, obesity costs the state $1.3 billion annually.

Predictions are that if we don't do something to stem the tide of childhood obesity, this generation of children will have a shorter life expectancy than that of its parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended cholesterol-testing for children as young as 2. Based on the results, kids could be on statins, more commonly prescribed for the middle-aged crowd. Sounds pretty scary.

While the picture looks grim, city and state leaders have taken a hard accounting of this state of affairs and are mobilizing, using creative means to encourage Oklahomans of all ages to make changes.

In an effort to promote healthy habits for young people, Oklahoma First Lady Kim Henry launched an innovative contest last fall encouraging state teenagers to tap into their creative side. The "MyTakeOnHealth Oklahoma Video Challenge" recognized middle and high school students who produced informative and entertaining videos about healthy lifestyle choices.

"We saw how obese our kids were, and the high rate of diabetes and all the health problems associated with an unhealthy lifestyle," Henry said of the contest's intent. "We all know that one of the biggest problems with the health of our citizens is lifestyle choices, choosing not to exercise, eating unhealthy foods and not taking care of ourselves because we seem to think that is easier.

"So, we thought if we really want to start changing the health of Oklahoma for the better, we need to start changing our choices and behaviors. What better way than starting with schools and getting good, healthy lifestyles instilled early? What we wanted to do was come up with a curriculum that would be fun and exciting so our young people could really get behind it and create some sustainability so this would stay in front of them for several months."

The video challenge " which was supported by a host of local partners, including state Superintendent Sandy Garrett " began Oct. 1, 2008, and concluded at the end of December. Henry traveled the state and challenged students to come up with a video on anything to do with health. They were asked to create and upload it to the MyTakeOnHealth Web site where the entries were voted upon.

First- and second-place winners were determined each month online. First prize earned $3,500 and second prize $1,500. In addition, the school's winning entry received $1,000. To keep up the momentum, weekly drawings were held for a variety of electronic items, including Nintendo Wiis, laptops and iPods.

"Our thinking was that kids really like technology, the Internet, things like YouTube and American Idol-type stuff," Henry said. "So we combined several of these programs when we came up with the contest."

By the end, 300 students created more than 100 videos for the contest, and the MyTakeOnHealth Web site received more than 100,000 hits.

"I am really pleased with the results," Henry said. "Health is all about awareness, and this contest was about helping our students stop and think about health, to keep them thinking about it and hopefully instill some behavior and lifestyle changes."

On a similar note, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett generated national buzz last year when he announced that the city was going on a diet and challenged citizens to collectively lose 1 million pounds.

"The two comments we chose, 'This city is going on a diet,' and 'We're going to lose a million pounds,' were simply eye-openers," he said. "I wanted people to stop and think."

Cornett considered that, as a community, Oklahoma City residents placed a high priority on the renaissance of the city itself, but not on themselves as its patrons. Bolstered by the emphasis on bettering all areas of the city, the mayor said he thought it possible that citizens could also focus on improving personal health.

"Everything we do as a city is at a higher standard than we used to do," he said. "Yet while we were placing a higher standard on everything, as people we were falling apart. Our obesity rate was increasing, so, why were we placing such high standards on roads and schools and all these other things but not us? That seems silly and counterproductive, the antithesis of what you would expect from a community that has raised its standards."

At year's end, 22 million people had visited the Web site thiscityisgoingonadiet.com. More than 270,000 pounds have been recorded lost and 120,000 e-mails received. Taco Bell has introduced the Fresco Menu, which offers modified options to the chain's regular staples, and select metro area restaurants now offer a "Mayor's Menu" at lunch.

"We are facing a real epidemic and it is going to take a partnership with the medical community, the restaurant industry, insurance companies and the government to address this tough problem," Cornett said. "Taking this kind of initiative and bringing this problem into the light is really a great thing. I would like Oklahoma City to be known as a city that took strides in this area."

Added Henry, "There are so many good programs and awareness issues going on right now. When you are inundated with healthy messages, it really starts to have an effect."

How on earth did we get to this enlarged state?

There are many factors, according to bariatrician Dr. Michael Steelman, including the very affluence of our culture.

"We have so much food that is relatively inexpensive, and that makes it easy to overeat," Steelman said. "Overeating is no more healthy than under eating."

As a bariatric physician, Steelman has supervised thousands of Oklahomans losing weight. He offered a number of reasons for the obesity epidemic, particularly as it relates to children:

The disappearance of the family meal: "Having a family meal allows several things to go on. It is a chance for the family to get together and for parents to model appropriate portion size and nutritional eating habits." Eating what is easiest: With both parents working outside the home in many families, people go for convenience when it comes to meals. Whether eating out or reaching for prepared foods, either option has consequences including higher fat, caloric and sugar contents. Portion sizes have gotten bigger: "When McDonald's first opened, the regular size of their portions was the same as what is in the Happy Meal." Kids are sedentary: Schools dropped noncompetitive sports programs. "In our culture today, we are almost afraid to let children go outside to play," Steelman said. "We set them down in front of a television or computer screen, and the majority of their activities are sedentary." Parents don't get out to play, either: "With our society being so fast-paced, filled with obligations and feeling worn out from work, parents are not taking care of themselves," Steelman said. "If they aren't taking care of themselves and serving as role models for a healthy lifestyle, children are taking the brunt of that." The picky eater syndrome: "If parents cater to the needs of a child who only eats one or two things, then they are catering to their wants, not their needs," he said. "Sure, a child prefers the taste of cake over broccoli, but which one is better?"

"Susan Grossman

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