Since the early 1970s, childhood obesity in the United States has tripled among the 6 to 11 year-old age group, and quadrupled among 12 to 19 year olds. A staggering 16 percent of the nation's children are now considered obese - not overweight, mind you, but obese - defined as a body mass index (BMI) that exceeds 30. Worse, type 2 diabetes, once a disease of overweight adults, is now common in children.
How did we get here? We could state the obvious: Kids consume more energy than they expend. We could blame television, computers, and other attention-getting gadgets that undermined the old parental admonishment to "go outside and play." We can blame all of the home-cooked meals that have been replaced by trips to the local fast-food establishments. There are a lot of things to blame.
In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acting on a request from Congress, looked at a potentially important player in the childhood obesity story - the marketing of foods to children. Its findings were presented an Institute of Medicine (IOM) study titled, "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity."
According to the report, at least 30 percent of the calories our nation's children consume come from sweets, soft drinks, salty snacks and fast food. Soft drinks alone account for over 10 percent of calories. And that's just the average. For some kids, soft drinks provide 1200 to 2000 calories per day - a threat to health by any measure.
As far the opportunity goes, it must be great because the numbers are staggering. According to the IOM report, American children rob their piggy banks to the tune of nearly $30 billion per year to purchase high calorie, low nutrient "junk" food. More than 600 new kid's products have been tossed into the ring since 1994, yet only one fourth of these qualify as "healthy" items. Kiddie-marketing budgets total an estimated $10 billion annually.
For kids, part of the fighting childhood obesity means eating a lot of "unhappy" meals - broccoli and other vegetables, low saturated-fat foods, and low sugar items. But some studies show too much obsession with meals drives kids towards "junk" food with increased enthusiasm. A recent article in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine compared methods for intervening in childhood obesity since 1973. While many dietary interventions worked in the short term, too few studies were of sufficient quality and time to draw conclusions on what worked consistently.
Still, there's no mystery about what constitutes a healthy diet for kids. They need, proportionately, a little more calcium, iron, protein and essential fatty acids than adults. They need a diet naturally rich in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. They also need sufficient calories from both fat and carbohydrates to support a growing body and an active life. Growing children need a slightly higher fat diet than adults, but made up of healthful fats, such as those in nuts.
Many processors are doing their part, trying different strategies to remedy the growing epidemic of childhood obesity. But some processors are still lagging behind, as are many foodservice industries.
This lagging contingent can take a page from an industry where kid-friendly means something completely different with respect to food. In this world, "happy meals" are sold on their ability to promote health, activity and longevity. The hook of these foods is their nutrient density, designed to meet the needs of young growing active bodies.
What is this health-obsessed industry? It's the world of dog food - specifically, puppy chow! Feeding your puppy is all about providing the best quality proteins, fats and carbohydrates, along with an abundance of vitamins and minerals. It's about targeting the needs of the growing juvenile. Most importantly, the industry usually works as a willing and eager cooperative venture between manufactures, dog owners and veterinarians.
To the processors still more interested in pushing unhealthy foods to kids, I submit human young people deserve at least the same consideration as puppies. Perhaps the difference is that puppies have no purchase-choice power. Puppies can't see dog food ads and pester their human keepers to "buy the one with the toy inside."
Kids need energy. That's why they don't make the best choices, preferring sugary foods and saturated fat to long-lasting energy. But rather than give in to their inexperienced demands we could cultivate this natural instinct with naturally nutrient-rich foods made of complex carbohydrates and nutritious fats.
The progressive food manufactures using this plan are finding it a lucrative format. We can have a better shot at conquering childhood obesity without a major paradigm shift.