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Junk Food Nation: Who's To Blame For Childhood Obesity?
We should all be concerned about the national obsession with food and the alarming number of children who are overweight or obese. Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert is doing something about it.
Junk Food Nation
by GARY RUSKIN & JULIET SCHOR
The Nation, August 11, 2005
In recent months the major food companies have been trying hard to convince Americans that they feel the pain of our expanding waistlines, especially when it comes to kids. Kraft announced it would no longer market Oreos to younger children, McDonald's promoted itself as a salad producer and Coca-Cola said it won't advertise to kids under 12. But behind the scenes it's hardball as usual, with the junk food giants pushing the Bush Administration to defend their interests. The recent conflict over what America eats, and the way the government promotes food, is a disturbing example of how in Bush's America corporate interests trump public health, public opinion and plain old common sense.
The latest salvo in the war on added sugar and fat came July 14- 15, when the Federal Trade Commission held hearings on childhood obesity and food marketing. Despite the fanfare, industry had no cause for concern; FTC chair Deborah Majoras had declared beforehand that the commission will do absolutely nothing to stop the rising flood of junk food advertising to children. In June the Department of Agriculture denied a request from our group Commercial Alert to enforce existing rules forbidding mealtime sales in school cafeterias of "foods of minimal nutritional value"--i.e., junk foods and soda pop. The department admitted that it didn't know whether schools are complying with the rules, but, frankly, it doesn't give a damn. "At this time, we do not intend to undertake the activities or measures recommended in your petition," wrote Stanley Garnett, head of the USDA's Child Nutrition Division.
Conflict about junk food has intensified since late 2001, when a Surgeon General's report called obesity an "epidemic." Since that time, the White House has repeatedly weighed in on the side of Big Food. It worked hard to weaken the World Health Organization's global anti-obesity strategy and went so far as to question the scientific basis for "the linking of fruit and vegetable consumption to decreased risk of obesity and diabetes." Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson--then our nation's top public-health officer--even told members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association to "'go on the offensive' against critics blaming the food industry for obesity," according to a November 12, 2002, GMA news release.
Last year, during the reauthorization of the children's nutrition programs, Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois attempted to insulate the government's nutrition guidelines from the intense industry pressure that has warped the process to date. He proposed a modest amendment to move the guidelines from the USDA to the comparatively more independent Institute of Medicine. The food industry, alarmed about the switch, secured a number of meetings at the White House to get it to exert pressure on Fitzgerald. One irony of this fight was that the key industry lobbying came from the American Dietetic Association, described by one Congressional staffer as a "front for the food groups." Fitzgerald held firm but didn't succeed in enacting his amendment before he left Congress last year.
By that time the industry's lobbying effort had borne fruit, or perhaps more accurately, unhealthy alternatives to fruit. The new federal guidelines no longer contain a recommendation for sugar intake, although they do tell people to eat foods with few added sugars. The redesigned icon for the guidelines, created by a company that does extensive work for the junk food industry, shows no food, only a person climbing stairs.
Growing industry influence is also apparent at the President's Council on Physical Fitness. What companies has the government invited to be partners with the council's Challenge program? Coca-Cola, Burger King, General Mills, Pepsico and other blue chip members of the "obesity lobby." In January the council's chair, former NFL star Lynn Swann, took money to appear at a public relations event for the National Automatic Merchandising Association, a vending machine trade group activists have been battling on in-school sales of junk food.
Not a lot of subtlety is required to understand what's driving Administration policy. It's large infusions of cash. In 2004 "Rangers," who bundled at least $200,000 each to the Bush/Cheney campaign, included Barclay Resler, vice president for government and public affairs at Coca-Cola; Robert Leebern Jr., president of federal affairs at Troutman Sanders PAG, lobbyist for Coca-Cola; Richard Hohlt of Hohlt & Co., lobbyist for Altria, which owns about 85 percent of Kraft foods; and José "Pepe" Fanjul, president, vice chairman and COO of Florida Crystals Corp., one of the nation's major sugar producers. Hundred-thousand-dollar men include Kirk Blalock and Marc Lampkin, both Coke lobbyists, and Joe Weller, chairman and CEO, Nestle USA. Altria also gave $250,000 to Bush's inauguration this year, and Coke and Pepsi gave $100,000 each. These gifts are in addition to substantial sums given during the 2000 campaign.
For their money, the industry has been able to buy into a strategy on obesity and food marketing that mirrors the approach taken by Big Tobacco. That's hardly a surprise, given that some of the same companies and personnel are involved: Junk food giants Kraft and Nabisco are both majority-owned by tobacco producer Philip Morris, now renamed Altria. Similarity number one is the denial that the problem (obesity) is caused by the product (junk food). Instead, lack of exercise is fingered as the culprit, which is why McDonald's, Pepsi, Coke and others have been handing out pedometers, funding fitness centers and prodding kids to move around. When the childhood obesity issue first burst on the scene, HHS and the Centers for Disease Control funded a bizarre ad campaign called Verb, whose ostensible purpose was to get kids moving. This strategy has been evident in the halls of Congress as well. During child nutrition reauthorization hearings, the man some have called the Senator from Coca-Cola, Georgia's Zell Miller, parroted industry talking points when he claimed that children are "obese not because of what they eat at lunchrooms in schools but because, frankly, they sit around on their duffs watching Eminem on MTV and playing video games." And that, of course, is the fault not of food marketers but of parents. Miller's office shut down a Senate Agriculture Committee staff discussion of a ban on soda pop in high schools by refreshing their memories that Coke is based in Georgia.
A related ploy is to deny the nutritional status of individual food groups, claiming that there are no "good" or "bad" foods, and that all that matters is balance. So, for example, when the Administration attacked the WHO's global anti-obesity initiative, it criticized what it called the "unsubstantiated focus on 'good' and 'bad' foods." Of course, if fruits and vegetables aren't healthy, then Coke and chips aren't unhealthy. While such a strategy is so preposterous as to be laughable, it is already having real effects. Less than a month after Cadbury Schweppes, the candy and soda company, gave a multimillion-dollar grant to the American Diabetes Association, the association's chief medical and scientific officer claimed that sugar has nothing to do with diabetes, or with weight. Industry has also bankrolled front groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom, an increasingly influential Washington outfit that demonizes public-health advocates as the "food police" and promotes the industry point of view.
Meanwhile, public opinion is solidly behind more restrictions on junk food marketing aimed at children, especially in schools. A February Wall Street Journal poll found that 83 percent of American adults believe "public schools need to do a better job of limiting children's access to unhealthy foods like snack foods, sugary soft drinks and fast food." Two bills recently introduced in Congress, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy's Prevention of Childhood Obesity Act and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's Healthy Lifestyles and Prevention (HeLP) America Act, both place significant restrictions on the ability of junk food producers to market in schools.
Interestingly, this is a crossover issue between red and blue states. Concern about obesity and excessive junk food marketing to kids is shared by people across the political spectrum, and some conservatives, such as Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly, as well as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have argued for restricting junk food marketing to children. This may be one of the reasons New York Senator Hillary Clinton has once again become vocal on the topic of marketing to children, although Senator Clinton has called not for government intervention but merely for industry self-regulation, requesting that the companies "be more responsible about the effect they are having"--exactly the policy the industry wants.
A vigorous government response would clearly garner the sympathy of the majority of Americans. The growing chasm between what the public wants and the Administration's protection of the profits of Big Food is a powerful example of the decline of democracy in this country. Let them eat chips!
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International Public Health
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Health Experts Call for Worldwide Ban on Marketing of Junk Food to Kids
Secret Document Shows Bush Administration Effort to Stop Global Anti-Obesity Initiative
Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance
The Surgeon General's Call To Action To Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity
Overweight in Children and Adolescents
THE PROBLEM OF OVERWEIGHT IN CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS
In 1999, 13% of children aged 6 to 11 years and 14% of adolescents aged 12 to 19 years in the United States were overweight. This prevalence has nearly tripled for adolescents in the past 2 decades.
Risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, occur with increased frequency in overweight children and adolescents compared to children with a healthy weight.
Type 2 diabetes, previously considered an adult disease, has increased dramatically in children and adolescents. Overweight and obesity are closely linked to type 2 diabetes.
Overweight adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. This increases to 80% if one or more parent is overweight or obese. Overweight or obese adults are at risk for a number of health problems including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer.
The most immediate consequence of overweight as perceived by the children themselves is social discrimination. This is associated with poor self-esteem and depression.
THE CAUSES OF OVERWEIGHT
Overweight in children and adolescents is generally caused by lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination of the two, with genetics and lifestyle both playing important roles in determining a child's weight.
Our society has become very sedentary. Television, computer and video games contribute to children's inactive lifestyles.
43% of adolescents watch more than 2 hours of television each day.
Children, especially girls, become less active as they move through adolescence.
DETERMINATION OF OVERWEIGHT IN CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS
Doctors and other health care professionals are the best people to determine whether your child or adolescent's weight is healthy, and they can help rule out rare medical problems as the cause of unhealthy weight.
A Body Mass Index (BMI) can be calculated from measurements of height and weight. Health professionals often use a BMI "growth chart" to help them assess whether a child or adolescent is overweight.
A physician will also consider your child or adolescent's age and growth patterns to determine whether his or her weight is healthy.
Let your child know he or she is loved and appreciated whatever his or her weight. An overweight child probably knows better than anyone else that he or she has a weight problem. Overweight children need support, acceptance, and encouragement from their parents.
Focus on your child's health and positive qualities, not your child's weight.
Try not to make your child feel different if he or she is overweight but focus on gradually changing your family's physical activity and eating habits.
Be a good role model for your child. If your child sees you enjoying healthy foods and physical activity, he or she is more likely to do the same now and for the rest of his or her life.
Realize that an appropriate goal for many overweight children is to maintain their current weight while growing normally in height.
PHYSICAL ACTIVITY SUGGESTIONS
Be physically active. It is recommended that Americans accumulate at least 30 minutes (adults) or 60 minutes (children) of moderate physical activity most days of the week. Even greater amounts of physical activity may be necessary for the prevention of weight gain, for weight loss, or for sustaining weight loss.
Plan family activities that provide everyone with exercise and enjoyment.
Provide a safe environment for your children and their friends to play actively; encourage swimming, biking, skating, ball sports, and other fun activities.
Reduce the amount of time you and your family spend in sedentary activities, such as watching TV or playing video games. Limit TV time to less than 2 hours a day.
HEALTHY EATING SUGGESTIONS
Follow the Dietary Guidelines for healthy eating (www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines).
Guide your family's choices rather than dictate foods.
Encourage your child to eat when hungry and to eat slowly.
Eat meals together as a family as often as possible.
Carefully cut down on the amount of fat and calories in your family's diet.
Don't place your child on a restrictive diet.
Avoid the use of food as a reward.
Avoid withholding food as punishment.
Children should be encouraged to drink water and to limit intake of beverages with added sugars, such as soft drinks, fruit juice drinks, and sports drinks.
Plan for healthy snacks.
Stock the refrigerator with fat-free or low-fat milk, fresh fruit, and vegetables instead of soft drinks or snacks that are high in fat, calories, or added sugars and low in essential nutrients.
Aim to eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Discourage eating meals or snacks while watching TV.
Eating a healthy breakfast is a good way to start the day and may be important in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
IF YOUR CHILD IS OVERWEIGHT
Many overweight children who are still growing will not need to lose weight, but can reduce their rate of weight gain so that they can "grow into" their weight.
Your child's diet should be safe and nutritious. It should include all of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for vitamins, minerals, and protein and contain the foods from the major Food Guide Pyramid groups. Any weight-loss diet should be low in calories (energy) only, not in essential nutrients.
Even with extremely overweight children, weight loss should be gradual.
Crash diets and diet pills can compromise growth and are not recommended by many health care professionals.
Weight lost during a diet is frequently regained unless children are motivated to change their eating habits and activity levels for a lifetime.
Weight control must be considered a lifelong effort.
Any weight management program for children should be supervised by a physician.
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American Obseity Association: Childhood Obesity
Childhood Obesity: A Food and Nutrition Resource List for Educators and Researchers
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The Roll of Media in Childhood Obesity
Preventing Childhood Obesity