The ostrich factor and childhood obesity

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Esther Cepeda
Sunday, November 20, 2011
— It would be nice to say that it’s shocking that a mere five days after the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommended that children between ages 9 and 11 get tested for high cholesterol, Congress blocked what would have been landmark changes to the school lunch program designed to reduce childhood obesity.

But it’s really no shock at all. Regardless of how many health reports and medical warnings are issued that the obesity epidemic will condemn children to shortened, diseased lifetimes, no one with the power to do anything about it seems to be willing to act—not Congress, not marketers, not even parents.

The guidance on cholesterol screenings for children came as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the skyrocketing numbers of infants, toddlers, grade-schoolers and teens who are either overweight or obese. More than one-third of all children and adolescents up to age 19 are overweight or obese, a rate that has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obesity—a disease that can be attributed to a complex mix of inactivity, nutritional incomprehension, genetics, socio-economic status, peer pressure, food insecurity, and/or cultural food consumption norms—is driving the medical establishment to worry about kids having fat-clogged heart arteries. This led the expert panel, with an endorsement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, to suggest that kids who haven’t yet hit puberty need cholesterol screenings—and diabetes screenings, too, for good measure.

But this didn’t keep Congress from bowing to pressures from certain food company lobbies to maintain a school lunch program status quo where high-salt foods rule, where the thin layer of tomato sauce in a slice of pizza counts as a vegetable, and deep fried potatoes are passed off as a healthful option instead of the once-in-a-while treat they should be.

Ignorance or complete disregard about the foods that public school children are offered—during a school day that more often than not does not include recess or gym class—is not limited to legislators. Here is just one example of marketers’ lax attitude toward the sad state of nutritional affairs in America.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who, ironically, has come under fire for her ferocity in trying to develop and promote healthy food products to the detriment of core Pepsi brands, recently told an interviewer at CNBC: “Sodas, Doritos, Lay’s are all just fine for you. … Look, anything consumed in excess is bad for you, but if everything is consumed in moderation, it’s the right thing.”

As a responsible adult, I agree completely with her notion. But I can tell you that when children have those types of foods available at their every turn—in the cafeteria checkout line, at school vending machines—they are not thinking about moderation.

Comments like this from snack-food company CEOs, and from food marketers who aggressively target children, are meant to soothe the anxieties of anyone who knows instinctively that although the sheer prevalence of junk food is in itself a real health concern, it is such a well-regarded part of our diets (I, too, love Pepsi, Doritos and Lay’s) that there’s almost no fighting it.

And then there are parents.

We live in a society that values not getting or inflicting hurt feelings above anything else. Parents know malnutrition—either low healthy food intake or over-intake of unhealthy food—is a problem. But no parent likes to have their child, or their parenting, criticized, and if their child happens to start showing signs of obesity risk and their pediatricians actually call it out, mom and dad don’t take it well.

A national survey published in the journal Pediatrics in September found that parents respond badly to words such as “fat,” “obese” and “extremely obese.” Apparently, they’d feel more motivated to get their child’s nutrition under control if a physician said the young one had an “unhealthy weight,” a “weight problem” or a “high BMI” (body mass index).

If subdued language is what it takes, then let me put it this way: Last week the International Diabetes Federation predicted that one in 10 adults could have diabetes by 2030. Given Americans’ complete apathy about childhood “unhealthy weight,” we’re well on our way.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 6:53 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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