Obesity, motivation, and food for thought

It’s been years since I gave away the rubber-tipped baby spoons and the bibs with the built-in pockets. But I can still picture the milestone moments when my kids realized that a world of food existed beyond the dab of baby cereal or pureed fruits and veggies I dangled under their noses. Their bright, curious eyes focused instead on whatever choke-able delight I was putting into my own mouth, and they didn’t need to speak intelligible words to communicate what they were thinking/ “Hey, forget this baby stuff—I want some of that!”

We parents shouldn’t be surprised, then, to note that this practice of observation and imitation doesn’t end when kids start walking and talking. They continue to pay close attention to what we do—way more than what we say, it would seem—as they grow older and begin to make their own choices about what, where, and when they eat. 

Positive role modeling is something Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota hopes to use to its advantage in its latest statewide campaign to reduce obesity and improve health. The new “Today is the Day” ads, which began running on TV in September and will continue into 2013, aim to encourage parents to set a better nutritional example for their kids, and to foster family conversations about healthful eating.

“We have recognized for quite some time that obesity is a serious health problem for both adults and kids in Minnesota and throughout the country,” says Dr. Marc Manley, Blue Cross vice president and chief prevention officer. “More than two-thirds of Minnesota adults are overweight or obese, and the rate of obesity among young people has been rising for the last couple of decades.”

The definition

The Minnesota Department of Health defines obese youth as those who have a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile for their age and sex. Youth are considered overweight if their BMI is at or above the 85th percentile, but less than the 95th percentile. According to 2010 statistics, 12 percent of the state’s ninth-grade boys and six percent of ninth-grade girls were considered obese; and 15 percent of ninth-grade boys and 11 percent of ninth-grade girls were considered overweight. 

Obesity puts people at greater risk for serious, life-threatening conditions such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke and colon cancer, and kids are now developing obesity-related diseases that once were seen only in adults.

Blue Cross research indicates that although 65 percent of Minnesota adults are unhappy with their weight, only 27 percent feel motivated to make the lifestyle changes necessary to help them lose weight. Knowing this, Manley says, the company decided to create thought-provoking ads that would make adults more aware of how their own eating behaviors could be contributing to obesity in their kids.

In one ad, two middle-school-aged boys in a fast-food restaurant argue about whose dad can eat more bacon double-cheeseburgers, French fries and corn dogs, as the dad of one boys approaches the table with a tray heaping with greasy food. In the other ad, a little girl follows her mom around the grocery store, filling her kid-sized cart with the same items her mom places in the big cart, including a box of sugary cereal, a two-liter of soda, and a tub of ice cream.

The ads direct viewers to the Blue Cross website for practical tools and tips on topics such as healthful home cooking and how to eat out in moderation.

“The message we want to get out to people is that the choices you’re making have an impact on your own health and may have an impact on your family’s health,” Manley says. “We hope the next time someone’s pushing a grocery cart down the aisle, or is at a restaurant with the family, he or she will pause, remember the ad and think, ‘I can do a better job, for my own health, and set a better example for my kids.’”

It’s impossible for me to watch the ads and not feel an emotional tug as the (actor) parents become aware of the unintended, negative consequences of their unhealthy behaviors. If other parents have a similar reaction, and “Today is the Day” motivates them to make better nutritional choices, I’m optimistic that many more Minnesota families will experience a future of healthier, happier tomorrows.

It’s certainly food for thought.