The New York Times today had a story about a vigilante group of Philadelphia parents in "bright-colored safety vests and walkie-talkies" gathered to admonish children entering a convenience store on their way to school against buying junk food. They think they're going to keep these kids from becoming obese.
All I can say is, "good luck."
You can food-pyramid kids to death (in my generation it was a square), trying to educate them to eat nutritionally, but they're going to like sweets. And even if they avoid sugar, we really don't know if any of these efforts would reduce the swelling child obesity rate.
The underlying assumption is that kids gorging on contraband is fattening them up, but apparently there's scant research data to support this. "Specific causes for the increase in prevalence of childhood obesity are not clear and establishing causality is difficult since longitudinal research in this area is limited," admits a report on childhood obesity from the US Department of Health and Human Services. It continues, "Several studies have been published that attempt to link children’s diets with the onset of obesity. However, none have been able to show a causal link between diet and obesity."
Nevertheless, the report gives us graphs and pie (!) charts illustrating changes in kids' diets over the years. For example, children in 1977 used to drink 1.5 times as much milk as any other drink. By 1996, they drank twice as much sugar-sweetened beverages as any other drink. Between those years, of course, we were bombarded with anti-cholesterol information, and school milk cartons downsized, down-fatted and up-priced. And also, those convenient, inexpensive "sugar-sweetened" boxed juices became very popular for sack lunches.
There are 100 calories in a Minute Maid box of enriched vitamins and calcium orange juice, 100 calories in a Minute Maid pouch of "Coolers" (sweetened) fruit punch. There are 100 calories in a cup (8 oz.) of 1% low fat milk, and 120 in a cup of 2% low fat milk. Which makes kids more obese?
But there's little to suggest that eating sweet things, per se, is the cause of obesity. We know that children like sweet tastes, though. If you've ever sampled breast milk (okay, I tasted a few drops of my own while nursing) you know it's surprisingly sweet. And it's loaded with fat--whole cow's milk is just 3% fat, but mother's milk, according to the first definitive study, is 5% fat in the first few months, and keeps getting richer--to a whopping 17.5% fat for moms nursing 1-3 years. The researchers speculated that these intense amounts of cholesterol at an early age accustom the body to it, and actually protect against future heart problems.
Could it be that young kids love sweets because they're naturally programmed to prefer mother's milk?
The Health and Human Services report then goes on to suggest that sitting is the culprit in kid obesity. After all, now children park in front of computer screens playing video games and doing Facebook. But the government report doesn't address new media--first, they admit they haven't got trend figures on children's physical activity. The best they've got is a one-shot study suggesting adolescents get less exercise than recommended. Then they resort to saying kids spend a quarter of their waking hours watching TV. That's bad--but this isn't any different than kids spent two decades ago, as I reported in a book on childhood co-authored with my husband.
The most convincing arguments regarding elevating obesity rates in children relate to genetic causes. Fat parents usually produce fat offspring, and I don't believe it's only due to learned sloth. Certain people have family dispositions to obesity, as a CDC research-overview report puns: "These investigations suggest that a sizable portion of the weight variation in adults is due to genetic factors."
Also, obesity statistics vary by racial groups, with black and Hispanic Americans experiencing significantly higher rates of obesity than other groups (51% and 21% more respectively, according to the CDC). New census data show that the US Hispanic population has increased 46.3% in the last decade, from 35.3 million people in 2000 to 50.5 million in the 2010 census. States which have increased Hispanic populations exhibit growths in obesity rates, and those with highest African-American populations also show highest obesity rates.
Another non-volitional explanation for increases in childhood obesity, perhaps related to familial connections, is that an obesity virus alters the way people process calories. Studies have found a greater likelihood of the adenovirus AD36 marker in the blood of obese children and adults. The virus, of the type that produces the common cold, was isolated just at the time that obesity rates took a steep climb. Animal studies on the virus found some shocking results: "Chickens, mice, rats and monkeys infected with the virus all get fat even though the animals don’t eat more or exercise less than they did before they were infected."
Today's article describing the Philadelphia parents' protective vigils at mom-and-pop stores was perplexing on several levels. Apparently, the kids have school breakfasts awaiting them, but prefer to stop at the corner store for candy. The article's highlighted student, Tatyana Gray, comes from a caring home, where her mom keeps a basket of fruit on the dining table. Tatyana eschews the fruit for morning cereal, and then "stops for a snack on the way to school." Her school, William D. Kelly, "has expelled soda and sweet snacks," and the nurse "pushes water" instead of fruit juice. The first-graders sing "Old MacDonald" with vegetarian lyrics: "and on his farm, he had some carrots," while skipping around a gym.
Still, the corner store lures these health-educated kids. "Ha, ha, ha!" one child teased a parent as she emerged with "the usual fare." "I bought everything!" another "bragged." "After several weeks of parent intervention," the article notes, "more children were skipping the corner stores, showing progress against the pull of sweet snacks."
I wouldn't count on it. Kids like sweets, and for some reason, sweet fruits aren't good enough. Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity is benign and might even benefit some people--certainly fresh foods and movement are worth touting. But I think we have to look beyond the "sugar is bad, exercise is good" obesity antidote and realize the problem has yet to be defined, much less solved by a bunch of well-meaning parents in florescent vests standing guard at the corner store.