Young Students in Cache Valley participate in the U.S. Food Dudes Program, which encourages kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.

When the eighth annual F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2011, a report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was issued last year, no one was talking about who is the most fit. It's all about who is the fattest - each of our country's states are ranked from "least obese" to "most obese."

The good news: Utah is sixth least obese. The bad news: Utah - like all the other states - is getting fatter. The worst news: This trend is killing our children.

The most startling statistic to come out of the obesity epidemic is that this generation may be the first with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. And Utah has the youngest population of any state in the country.

Obesity is the second leading cause of death in the United States, right after tobacco. And the costs of obesity runs Utahns about $400 million every year in direct health care.

One in five 21.5 percent of - Utah elementary schoolers and 20.4 percent of Utah high schoolers - are overweight or obese, according to the Utah Department of Health.

That means these kids are at increased risk for health problems usually found only in adults - like type II diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, gall bladder and liver disease. They may experience joint problems, suffer from asthma and develop irregular menstrual periods. Overweight and obese children are more likely to have social problems and feel under confident. They are less likely to succeed in school.

The problems only increase with age, and the future implications are frightening and expensive. In 2009, the Pentagon issued a report that the number of troops diagnosed as overweight or obese had more than doubled since the start of the first Iraq war. Now, FIrst Lady Michelle Obama has made battling childhood obesity one of her signature causes, famously saying, "A lack of fitness is not just a health issue but a national security issue."

Lynda Blades, program manager of the Utah Physical Activity and Nutrition Organization (PANO), says, "In generation past, health departments were concerned with infectious diseases. Now the challenge is chronic illness; obesity is a chronic illness. And it's a self-caused illness, encouraged by the whole world.

"Fighting obesity requires a cultural shift. Our job is to create partnerships with entities that can make changes - worksites, schools, communities."

This could take a generation. Or more.

It's a dismal picture. Fat affects everything. Despite its epidemic level, obesity is oddly unmentionable.

It's the elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge. And, although everyone agrees that the obesity problem needs to be addressed in early childhood, the U.S. Congress and Utah legislators have shown a reluctance to institute lunch standards and rules that might help with consumption of junk food in schools. In November, Congress blocked the Department of Agriculture's proposals to overhaul the national school lunch program by cutting down on potatoes, cutting sodium in half and adding fresh fruits and vegetables.

Meaning, a slice of pizza still counts as a vegetable.

Utah has the highest-in-the-nation ranking for schools that sell junk food in vending machines. Nearly 92 percent of Utah secondary schools allow cookies, crackers, chocolate, salty snacks, soda pop or sports drinks to be sold on school grounds. The national average, meanwhile, is 62 percent.

There is some good news: Last March, four elementary schools in Park City won the bronze in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Healthier U.S. School Challenge, joining the ranks of a group recognized nationally for excellence in health, nutrition. In October, the Alpine and Tooele school districts received $1.4 million in federal grants to implement physical activity and nutrition programs for students to make progress toward state standards for physical education. And at last count, there were 277 Utah elementary schools currently participating in PANO's Gold Medal School program.

Nipping Obesity in the Bud

Obesity is a dauntingly complicated problem: it's hard to know where to begin and easy to get discouraged.

But public health workers compare obesity to smoking, a habit it took generations for the country to kick. It required corrective legislation and a complete shift in perspective and perception of tobacco, but now, smoking is not the accepted habit it used to be.

Like smoking, the key is prevention, not treatment. It is easier to form healthy habits than break bad ones.

The cause of the obesity epidemic is even more complex, rooted in public policy, agriculture subsidies, genetics, working environments, the rising disparity between rich and poor, advertising, the increase in sedentary recreation and work, prevalence of high-fat and high-sugar foods and simply, a shift in manners and habits. Corn syrup, fast food, video games, convenience foods and car culture.

The solution?

"It requires a complete change in the built environment, culture, business, government policies and the daily life of most Americans," says Blades.

Changing how Utah's children eat will need to address all that - and more. But most experts agree that the only way to tackle this enormous problem is by starting with small steps.

"It's challenging to remain optimistic," Blades admits. "But I am."

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