Still No Clear Solutions for Childhood Obesity

It's been 20 years of steady upward girth inflation for our nation's children, but we've yet to successfully address the critical issue of childhood obesity.

By Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

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The debate may rage on as to who is responsible for children's poor eating choices, but the key question is, how can we reverse this trend?

Overweight children — something nearly all public health experts agree is our top health-crisis challenge — has grasped the attention of our governments, researchers and society at large. The situation is so severe David Ludwig M.D., Ph.D., and his co-researchers at Children's Hospital, Boston, shook the medical and regulatory communities in March with their report that today’s generation of children may be the first group to die younger than their parents. Public attention and pressure, arguably misplaced in some respects, have intensified on the food industry to provide a solution.

Poor nutritional choices are the dietary linchpin of obesity. Today’s youth are increasingly relying on foods that are calorie-dense, sugar- and fat-laden and purchased outside the home. Sedentary lifestyle compounds the nutrition deficit leaving our children to face a lifetime of health woes.

At the April conference of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, it was revealed no other source approaches soda and fruit drinks in providing more calories to the American teenager’s diet, with cakes, cookies and candy 13 percent lower in calorie contribution. Fiber intake for U.S. kids was dismal. Put succinctly, kids are eating as regular meals foods and food components that should be occasional treats. American children are, ironically, fat yet malnourished.

Yet can food choices be blamed on, or considered the responsibility of, food companies? There’s no avoiding the fact kids take the brunt of marketing messages for “empty-calorie” products. But at the end of the day, parents and guardians influence what their children eat — by purchasing power, example and teaching. But processors have become more aware of the role they play.

Most of the food and drink brand names heavily advertised are owned by just five major food companies, Kraft, General Mills, PepsiCo, Nestle and ConAgra. These companies are very much aware they have a vested interest in the debate on how to combat the obesity epidemic. The food industry can take a pole position in ensuring adequate childhood nutrition. By creating healthier, nutrient-rich foods and marketing them responsibly, they will help abolish incentives for making poor quality foods.

Prevention

Prevention is the most effective approach to fight obesity, and there is plenty of opportunity for food processors to participate. Janice Newell Bissex, former nutrition consultant to the U.S. Senate and founder of Meal Make Over Moms, Melrose, Mass., points to Barbara’s Bakery (www.barbarasbakery.com), in Petaluma, Calif., as an excellent example of a child-friendly food processor. Foods from Barbara’s Bakery, which include snacks, cookies, crackers, cereals and other baked goods, make use of whole grains and have no added sugar or fat. The company also adds fiber and omega-3s to its many products.

Reducing sugar is probably the single best thing processors can do in their formulations. “Healthy, low-sugar eating patterns must be established in early childhood to create a lifelong routine of nutritious eating,” says Richard Visser, M.D. and founder of SimplyH (www.simplyh.com), a health-oriented children’s foods and beverages group based in Los Angeles.

Although the recent upsurge in whole grain foods, specifically breakfast cereals, was a major positive step in improving nutrition for kids, there’s still a long way to go. Endorsements from organizations such as the American Heart Assn. and the American Diabetes Assn. often appearing on products may lead them to be perceived as OK to eat unlimited amounts of. Yet a number of these products deliver 12 to 14 g of sugar per cup — that’s 40 percent of calories from sugar.

Key Nutrients

Several nutrients are gaining prominence in the fight against obesity: dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron and pre/probiotics. Diets rich in omega-3s have been associated in research with a number of health benefits. Unfortunately, American kids do not traditionally eat diets high in this beneficial fat. Of the numerous cardiovascular and other health benefits associated with omega-3s, they are also crucial to nerve development. Other studies have shown omega-3s may help maintain lean weight status.

Source Food Technologies (www.nextraoil.com), Raleigh-Durham, N.C., recently launched Nextra Gold, a trans fat-free oil enhanced with heat-stable phytosterols. The heat stability is the key for this nutrient, previously difficult to keep stable even at ambient temperatures. President Hank Cardello says, “Every little bit counts, and processors that can invisibly enhance the nutritional profiles of their food products are likely to help win the fight against obesity.”

Horizon Organic has incorporated NutriFlora from GTC Nutrition into its lunchbox organic smoothies, providing added digestive and immune health benefits.

Calcium has perhaps the most profound influence on long-term health of children. Adequate intake in the early years is critical to bone health and growth. While dairy products are excellent sources of calcium, there are a number of alternative calcium-rich foods that can be incorporated into the diets of children.

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