Today's newborn Americans risk a shorter average life span than their parents. The reason is simple. They eat too many unhealthy foods and they do not move around. But will they do anything about it?
Three boys bounce down onto the plastic furniture in a half-full McDonald's restaurant.
"Do we eat here often? Every day if we can afford it," they smile.
The school lunch break is on, but the food there cannot compete with the tasty calorie bombs available here.
"We don't like vegetables and the burger isn't cooked properly in school, they say between mouthfuls."
A stone's throw away from the high school in this small town called Temple in Texas, there are 10 cafés selling unhealthy junk food, just as in any American small town. They are filled with school kids and nice grandparents who are buying their grandkids lunch.
Rodingo Nervarra and his friends, Irvin Zavala and Jesus Rodriquez, are typical for Americans with health problem number one.
Their clothes are size XXL. They think french fries are vegetables. They could not imagine drinking anything with their lunch other than a giant coke or a milkshake full of sugar. This is cheap food. The whole lunch is $3 or $4. But a school lunch would still be cheaper. They do not need saggy pants to document the effects of this.
Two of them had to repeat a year in school, which is why they have more time off. The three boys, first generation Mexican immigrants, are typical of those suffering from obesity in America. The problem is most common among people of Latino or African American descent.
More than one-third of adult Texans are categorized as being "overweight." And in a few years, one in every three Americans will have a weight problem unless the trend changes. This is costing the American health care system billions of dollars. For the first time since the Civil War, American children cannot expect to outlive their parents. The reason is obesity and related diseases.
How did Americans end up like this?
There are three reasons. "The meals are too big, the food is unhealthy and no one exercises," the leader of the Oliver Foundation, Deborah L. Woehler, told Aftenposten.
We are in a meeting room at Baylor College of Medicine. Here in Houston, the foundation is working extensively with schools to make kids healthier. Together with a team of scientists from Baylor College of Medicine, they are studying the reasons why obesity is spreading like an epidemic not just in Texas, but in America as a whole. "The worst of it is that the rate of obesity is increasing most quickly among children between two and five years old. Parents are overfeeding them," she explains.
Dr. Craig Johnston is one of the people who knows this problem best in America, and leads the team working with Oliver.
"The obesity problem in America is new. It skyrocketed in the 1980s and now overshadows eating disorders like bulimia."
According to doctors, the reasons are mixed, and they tell a lot about American society.
Safety concerns mean many American kids are not walking or cycling to school. Sidewalks and bicycle paths are few and far between in an America made by and for the automobile.
"Obesity today crosses all social groups and races. But we see that people with Latino and African American backgrounds are over-represented. We do not yet know why that is; genetic reasons could be a factor. Another could be culinary traditions associated with these ethnic groups. Food is identity. African Americans eat more fried food," Johnston says.
You hardly see the fattest kids. They are at home. Fourth graders who weigh 125 kg [about 275 pounds] do not go outside. Their obesity disables them. Some need hip or knee surgery before they are confirmed.
The second graders at Dulles elementary are proud to show the healthy things they brought as snacks or lunches. Miss Garcia, the teacher, asks them to tell her what is healthy. After a year, the kids' ways of eating have changed. That affects the entire family.
"Oliver has helped to train the kitchen staff. In the cafeteria, healthier foods are served, including milk. It is a huge problem today that kids do not get enough milk or other dairy products to strengthen their bones," Sandy Bristow explains. The kids call her Miss Oliver.
The second graders are like most kids; they are unruly and have trouble speaking one at a time. They eagerly talk about how they have demanded healthier food from their parents during the last week. Family menus are scrutinized to the smallest detail. The teacher brags about the ones who are eating healthy, like Oliver has taught her. Most start their sentence like this: “Do you know what my dad gave me for dinner?”
Dr. Johnston says research shows that, increasingly, it is the fathers who are cooking dinner in American homes. When Oliver has a cooking class, fathers are asking for tips on how to easily make food healthier.
"We are people with little time. In the lower social classes, women often work multiple part time jobs. In the upper classes, kids are rushed between piano lessons, soccer, ballet, etc. Food must be quick and simple. If you take a look in most Americans freezers, they are full of T.V. dinners ready for the microwave," the doctor explains.
People cannot cook anymore. Dad and the microwave have become an efficient, but unhealthy, combination. For those who are unable to even do that, there is always the possibility of takeout from the corner restaurant. This social development cannot be stopped. That is why the goal is to make some changes in every day life that will improve overall health. More vegetables, fewer sugary drinks and, equally important, more exercise. Johnston says some classes have sent him suggestions to reintroduce a morning gym class. "It does not take a lot for it to get better," he says.
It is not just cooking habits that were changed by the microwave oven, introduced to American homes in the 1970s. Nutrition experts know that the taste preferences of Americans have changed dramatically. They are now accustomed to the taste of junk food — a lot of salt and sugar. They prefer pepperoni pizza over cabbage.
How do people react when you show up to put them on diets?
"That's exactly what we do not do," Bristow says. "This is not about jeans sizes; it's about health. Oliver never suggests anyone should diet. People are happy with the body they have, but we want to make sure they live healthier lives and are able to avoid health problems like diabetes and heart disease. The result is that the most obese will lose weight."
Christopher Claflin runs Yes Prep, a high school specializing in sending troubled kids to college. There, food and exercise matter. Healthy students are away from school less often and can show better results academically. Johnston's research suggests the same.
Sandy Bristow tells the kids they must plan what they eat.
"Why?" a student asks.
"Are you going out this weekend?"
"What are you going to wear?"
"A dress," the student replies."
"See," Bristow smiles. "Just as naturally as you plan what to wear, you should think about what you should eat when you're going out."
School district after school district is removing soda machines. The kids are encouraged to drink water. In the teacher's lounge, the soda and chocolate machines are still there. Texas is a state with a lot of immigration and migration. Often, immigrant families, especially those from Asian countries, will try to maintain their eating habits. But after six months, their kids will eat American junk food.
Dr. Johnston admits it is difficult to get through to kids with information and to motivate parents to change. The parents would love for their kids' habits to change and they want their kids to exercise more. But they do not want to change their own lives.
"We have a joke that once we have solved the obesity problem in the U.S., we will have peace on earth. It shouldn't be too hard," he laughs.