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Schools take aim at obesity epidemic

Published: Wednesday, April 15 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Fifi Hosea, Sydney Davis and Sydney Sager laugh as the theater troupe from Intermountain Healthcare performs a humorous show design to help kids avoid obesity at Bonneville Jr. High.

Michael Brandy, Deseret News

From a comedy routine geared around a life-sized Barbie doll to a graphic film clip of 12-year-old girl undergoing liposuction surgery, a few of Utah's public schools are talking openly about the growing obesity epidemic within their ranks.

Two Salt Lake area junior high schools hosted different programs on Tuesday, aimed at encouraging students to focus on what they eat and why. Presenters at Bonneville Junior High used comedy to highlight not only how unrealistic societal expectations hold millions of girls and women to impossible standards of beauty, but the impact that anorexia and bulimia can have on future health and wellness.

The programs also focused on behaviors typical of teenage life that can lead to obesity, including a fondness for fast food, soda and too much "screen time," whether it is inactivity in front of the TV, computer or cell phone.

The programs featured a live stage production — dubbed "LiVe, This is Your Life!" — a research-based production aimed at helping students make healthy choices and build good nutrition and fitness habits. Sponsored by Intermountain Healthcare and SelectHealth, the show will be presented at some 75 schools this year and another 75 next year, after a successful run through many local schools in 2008.

Dr. Tamara Lewis, IHC's medical director for community health prevention, said the major themes she's most concerned about are getting rid of sweetened drinks and boosting students' activity level.

"We'd like to see them come to the point that the only things they are drinking consistently are water and low-fat or no-fat milk," Lewis said. Actors depict how much sugar is contained in a 32-ounce fast-food container of Mountain Dew and even "healthy" fruit drinks, beverages teens gravitate to without thinking about the health consequences.

"We're talking about the difference between 'every day' foods and 'occasional' foods. The Easter Bunny is a one-day event, and we don't need dessert with every meal," she said.

Getting teens off the couch and outside, whether they're walking, running, biking, or engaged in other sports, is the other main focus health officials are pushing, Lewis said. "Kids need at least 60 minutes of activity every day to stay healthy, and that's not just exercising their fingers when they text-message."

Information about the recommendations for students and their families can be found at www.IntermountainLiVe.org.

At Olympus Junior High, students were invited with their families to a Tuesday night screening of "Killer at Large," a 2008 documentary produced by local filmmakers about the obesity epidemic that features the story of a 12-year-old girl who undergoes surgery to deal with her weight.

Bryan Young, the film's producer, said a teacher at the school was enthusiastic about its message after having seen it previously. The film was screened in Salt Lake City last summer and has been shown on both coasts, with an official premiere last fall in New York.

"It got a standing ovation, and there was an hour-long Q-and-A afterwards," Young said. "Generally, the film has been well received by people who understand this is a great problem in our culture. We're the heaviest population in the history of the world, and there's a reason for it."

Young said filmmakers were invited by school officials to present the film, and other schools are beginning to take an interest. As a result, "we'll be coming out soon with a short version designed for teachers that have 45 minutes of class time. That 20-minute version will be available for free to teachers across the country," on the film's Web site, www.killeratlarge.com.

While one segment showing surgery on the 12-year-old "is a little hard to watch, and was certainly hard to film," Young said he believes it was important "to include something that would make people understand how far some are going to deal with the weight problem.

"It's not our job to say it's right or wrong, but people are approaching their problems in that way. They took 35 pounds of fat off her, did a tummy tuck and took 10 more pounds off. She ended up gaining the weight back."

The film features several national figures speaking about the obesity epidemic, including former President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who has said America's most pressing issue is obesity.

"It's the terror within," Carmona said in the film. "It's destroying us from within, and unless we do something about it, the magnitude of (its consequences) will dwarf 9/11."

Healthy habits

A public-service campaign geared at teens is asking them to:

1. Always eat a healthy breakfast.

2. Eat more fruits and vegetables.

3. Limit or eliminate sweetened drinks.

4. Limit time on TV, video games and the Internet.

5. Increase physical activity to at least 60 minute per day.

6. Eat meals sitting down as a family without TV.

7. Be positive about food; don't use it as a reward or punishment.

8. Don't criticize about weight — yours or others.

E-MAIL: carrie@desnews.com

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