President, Strategic Communications, LLC

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Competitive Foods and Obesity - Be Very Careful

Mix funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Charitable Trust with the branding of Harvard and you have a recipe for making news from scratch, no added sugars here. So it is not surprising that a new pediatric obesity study shows that laws strictly curbing school sales of  so-called junk food and sweetened drinks may [emphasis added] play a role in slowing childhood obesity received wide coverage across the country.

The Associated Press (AP) coverage, which most papers across the country used, noted, "even obesity experts who praised the study acknowledge the measures are a political hot potato, smacking of a 'nanny state' and opposed by industry and cash-strapped schools relying on food processors' money. Buried deep down in the AP copy, perhaps by an editor, is the one paragraph of "balance" provided by Boston University statistician Mark Glickman who said, "the study design makes it difficult to reach any convincing conclusions.

What bothers me is that Lindsey Tanner, a very good AP medical writer based in Chicago, goes out and rounds up the usual food critics for comment. Dr. David Lustig is quoted as saying, "if the laws have even a tiny effect, 'what are the downsides of improving the food environment for children today?' He concluded, "The challenge is that there are a great many factors that coalesce to influence body weight. Disentangling these influences and looking at the independent effects of just one is a methodological nightmare." Then Dr. Virginia Stallings adds her two-cents worth, "This is the first real evidence that the laws are likely to have an impact." Stallings, an out-spoken industry critic,  chaired an Institute of Medicine panel that urged standards for making snack foods and drinks sold in schools more healthful.

On the merits of the issue, the children in the study gained less weight from fifth through eighth grades if they lived in states with strong, consistent laws versus no laws governing snacks available in schools. For example, kids who were 5 feet tall and 100 pounds gained on average 2.2 fewer pounds if they lived in states with strong laws in the three years studied. Also, children who were overweight or obese in fifth grade were more likely to reach a healthy weight by eighth grade if they lived in states with the strongest laws.

Importantly, the effects weren't huge, and the study isn't proof that the laws influenced kids' weight.
If a fraction of the time and money spent on pushing taxes and food bans were applied to nutrition 101 for kids in school, K-12 and the freshman year in college we would make some progress. As my RD friends remind me, you cannot force a person to change what he or she eats. Once they decide to change, then RDs and other health professionals can help. And, yet another study funded by a big charity that shows mix results at best is really not news.

The authors of the study, released online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

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