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Can you tell us a little bit about yourself Swetha, and how you got interested in childhood obesity?

I am a 10th grader at the Nueva School and live in Saratoga, CA. 

Over my 8th grade summer vacation, I visited the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in Bay Area, CA. There, I was introduced to the Youth Nutrition Program Coordinator. I told him that I am advocate for good health and that I love teaching children. Captivated by my passion and interest in promotion and health, he talked to me about the program he was working on called the 5210 nutrition and fitness program. It is a program, hosted by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, whose mission is to improve nutritional knowledge and behaviors of students and enable them to develop positive health behaviors and attitudes.

What is the 5210 program?

The 5 in 5210 stands for eat fruits and vegetables at least five or more times on most days. The 2 stands for limit “screen time” to two hours or less each day. The 1 stands for get one hour or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. The 0 stands for drink less sugar. Water and milk should be substituted for sugar-sweetened drinks and whole milk.

What were some of the outcomes of this program?

The Youth Coordinator showed me some of the pre– and post surveys he had given the students, to whom he introduced the 5210 program. The results were amazing. Many of the children were eating more dinners with their family, exercising more, and saw the importance in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

After seeing the impact that the 5210 program makes on children, I wanted promote the 5210 program in more schools, implement it in different organizations, and use the program to raise awareness for childhood obesity, which can be combated by healthy lifestyle habits. Ever since that 8th grade summer, my goal has been to bring a change in the lives of young children by tackling childhood obesity early on, but not through lectures, through games, diagrams, experiments, and books, and all of these activities build off of one simple message – 5210.

What were some of the key activities you did to promote the 5210 program?

A key program at my school is the annual Quest project. The teacher who is the head of this program encourages students to pursue an independent, year long, passion driven project. My work regarding the 5210 program fit perfectly into this program. This program also gave me the chance to present my work to my peers, parents, teachers, and faculty at the end of the year.

Because there is a large population of Hispanics in the Bay Area and their population ranks second among the highest rates of obesity, Hispanics were the target audience of my work last school year. I promoted the 5210 program in the afterschool program of an elementary school. For 4 weeks, I taught 12 to 15 1st graders in the school’s after school program about the 5210 program, each week focusing on a different component of the program. I gave the parents pre– and post– surveys to evaluate the children’s progress. Through teaching the children, I quickly learned that they love indulging in lemonade, chocolate milk, juice, and soda. After a visual, interactive activity, in which I had the children guess how much sugar is in some of their favorite drinks and then I measured in teaspoons the correct amount, the children realized how much sugar they consume daily.

After the pre-survey that the children along with their parents filled out, they were surprised to find that they were consuming 2 sodas, about 20 tablespoons of sugar, a day, which is a lot more than the daily allowance of 6-7 a day. Interestingly, after a month of education, it was heartening to note that the children had made a significant effort to cut down their sugar intake. The post-survey results showed that instead of 2 sodas a day, on average, each 1st grader was only consuming 1 soda per week. My hope is that these children are encouraged by their families to practice these healthy habits even after I leave.

And what is your focus this year?

This school year I am focusing on extending the 5210 program to the Indian population because Indians are prone to abdominal obesity, which is an independent risk factor for diabetes. Last summer, I talked about the 5210 program to 20 elementary school children attending the summer camp at the Indian Community Center. During the school year, for one day, I was in charge of the 5210 booth at a large Diwali festival in Cupertino. For about 8 hours, I educated attendees on nutrition, fitness, obesity, and the 5210 program. Through interactive displays about sugar, food models, and the game, Spin the Wheel, attendees got the opportunity to learn and test their knowledge on the previously mentioned topics. Before they left my booth, I asked them to fill out a 4-question feedback survey on how helpful the lecture, game, and pamphlets were and how they rated their health, now that they knew what a healthy lifestyle consists of.

More recently, I talked to 14 children at the South Asian Health Center about the 5210 program. I proceeded to tell them how these intangible healthy habits pertain to the body. To do this, I showed them a 5-pound rubber muscle and a rubber model of fat. When I had them hold both, they were astonished that the 5-pound muscle weighed the same as the fat. In this way, the models were useful devices to demonstrate how fatty foods and cholesterol relate to fat in the body, plaque, and heart attacks.

Why Should We Care?

In the United States, between 17% of children and adolescents are obese. Unhealthy weight gain is responsible for over 300,000 deaths each year. Furthermore, the annual cost to society for obesity is estimated at nearly $100 billion. Childhood obesity leads to a greater risk for health problems that were once confined to adults, such as high blood pressure, breathing, and sleeping problems, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. Lastly, childhood obesity can lead to poor self-esteem and depression.[1]

The reality is that childhood obesity is a rapidly growing problem, and early intervention is essential because of serious downstream problems, and the expense of treating these consequences can be extreme. There are two routes to achieving a healthy lifestyle and combating childhood obesity – there is a simple route involving commitment, moderation, healthy eating, and physical activity and a long, difficult route involving a great amount of willpower, constant monitoring, and diets.

My goal is to introduce children, early on, to the simple route. Through showing the children diagrams, posters, and rubber models of the variety of different fruits, vegetables, carbohydrate based foods, protein based foods, dairy products, and non-sugary drinks, I give them examples of healthy foods and drinks but also show them that they have a lot to choose from and that their choice matters.

What are your goals for the future?

Obese children are likely to become obese adults, but adopting and maintaining healthier patterns of eating and exercise is a significant step forward to combating childhood obesity. In the near future, I hope to promote the 5210 program in more schools, introduce the program to more organizations, and create a website that raises awareness about childhood obesity, but my ultimate goal is for people to recognize and genuinely care about the issue at hand and share the healthy lifestyle habits that they learn about with their families and friends.


[1] "CDC - Obesity - Facts - Adolescent and School Health." 2005. 22 Jan. 2015 <http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm>

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