Taking on childhood obesity

by L. Joshua Sosland
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WASHINGTON — Obesity, glucose intolerance and hypertension in childhood may play a significant role in premature death, according to a study published in the Feb. 11 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Two days before the study was published, President Barack Obama signed a presidential memorandum that will create the first federal task force on childhood obesity.

The NEJM study examined 4,857 non-diabetic Native American children who were born between 1945 and 1984, when they were 11 years old on average, looking at premature death risk factors such as body mass index (B.M.I.), glucose tolerance, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

A total of 559 deaths were recorded in individuals before they reached the age of 55, including 166 who died of causes other than accidents and homicides, or “endogenous causes.” The rates of death from endogenous causes among children in the highest quartile of B.M.I. were more than double those among children in the lowest B.M.I. quartile. Meanwhile, the rates of death among children in the highest quartile of glucose intolerance were 73% higher than those among children in the lowest quartile, the study showed. The study did not find a link between high cholesterol levels and premature death.

“Childhood obesity is becoming increasingly prevalent around the globe,” the researchers wrote. “Our observations, combined with those of other investigators, suggest that failure to reverse this trend may have wide-reaching consequences for the quality of life and longevity. Such evidence underscores the importance of preventing obesity starting in the early years of life.”

The presidential task force, which will include officials within the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Education, will be charged with developing a comprehensive interagency action plan to combat childhood obesity.

“Across our country, childhood obesity has reached epidemic rates and, as a result, our children may live shorter lives than their parents,” Mr. Obama said. “Obesity has been recognized as a problem for decades, but efforts to address this crisis to date have been insufficient. My administration is committed to redoubling our efforts to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation through a comprehensive approach that builds on effective strategies, engages families and communities, and mobilizes both public and private sector resources.”

The creation of the obesity task force is part of a larger, nationwide campaign unveiled by First Lady Michelle Obama to end the problem of childhood obesity in a single generation. The program, called “Let’s Move,” has set forth many initiatives, including getting parents more involved in nutrition and exercise, improving the quality of food in schools and making healthy foods more affordable and accessible.

“The first lady will lead a national public awareness effort to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity,” Mr. Obama said. “She will encourage involvement by actors from every sector — the public, nonprofit, and private sectors, as well as parents and youth — to help support and amplify the work of the federal government in improving the health of our children.

“But to meet our goal, we must accelerate implementation of successful strategies that will prevent and combat obesity. Such strategies include updating child nutrition policies in a way that addresses the best available scientific information, ensuring access to healthy, affordable food in schools and communities, as well as increasing physical activity and empowering parents and caregivers with the information and tools they need to make good choices for themselves and their families.”

Mr. Obama said the task force on childhood obesity will use the next 90 days to develop and submit to him an interagency plan.

“The food and beverage industry applauds First Lady Michelle Obama for her leadership on this critical health issue,” said Pamela Bailey, chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington. “Leadership from the Obama administration as highlighted today by the first lady will be extraordinarily helpful as we all work to solve this critical issue.”

In a separate announcement, Mrs. Obama was named an honorary chair of the Partnership for a Healthier America foundation, which was launched Feb. 9 as a means to unite the public and private sectors in the effort to solve the childhood obesity challenge. The non-partisan organization was created by a number of leading foundations and nonprofits, including The California Endowment, Kaiser Permanente, Nemours, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

Beverage makers look to provide calorie clarity

WASHINGTON — Many of the nation’s beverage companies are joining a voluntary effort that will make calorie counting more consumer friendly. The initiative comes on the heels of First Lady Michelle Obama’s call for innovative industry initiatives that contribute to her “Let’s Move” healthy families program.

The companies are expected to coordinate with the Food and Drug Administration to implement the calorie initiative, which will put calorie information on the front of all packaging, vending machines and fountain machines. The industry will start implementing the initiative across the United States this year with completion in 2012.

“The beverage industry is taking the extra step of making the calories on its products more clear and useable for consumers so they can make balanced choices wherever they purchase our products,” said Susan Neely, president and chief executive officer of the American Beverage Association. “By contributing to the first lady’s initiative, our industry is once again leading with a meaningful program to do its part in addressing social challenges. We applaud Mrs. Obama for her common-sense, balanced approach to a tough issue like childhood obesity, which will require contributions from all segments of society to fully tackle.”

Ms. Neely said the beverage industry also is committed to reducing the beverage calories in the marketplace through innovation, smaller portion sizes and further marketing of low-calorie beverages.

As part of the initiative, total calorie counts will be displayed on the front of beverage labels for the entire container, up to and including 20-oz products. A 12-oz serving size will be used in displaying calories for multi-serve beverage packages (such as 2-liter bottles). For vending machines, the total calorie counts will be displayed prominently on the beverage selection buttons.

The A.B.A. also has pledged to explore other fact-based labeling on its packages, such as the feasibility of expanding the current information for per cent of Daily Value, currently found in the Nutrition Facts Panel of all packaged foods and beverages, to include other nutrients and also put this information on the front of labels where relevant.

In 2008, the Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, began putting calories per serving and servings per container information on the front of all packages in its U.S. beverage portfolio. The company said at the time that it viewed its product labels as a “powerful tool for education.”

Produce group launches ‘A Salad Bar in Every School’ campaign

WASHINGTON — In line with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” childhood obesity campaign, the United Fresh Produce Association Foundation (U.F.P.A.F.) unveiled its “A Salad Bar in Every School” campaign. The multi-year public health initiative from the fresh produce industry is designed to bring fruit and vegetable salad bars to schools across the United States.

The U.F.P.A.F., which donated its first salad bar to a public charter school in Washington this past fall, said the goal of the program is to use charitable commitments from produce growers, distributors and marketers to raise private funds to donate salad bars to schools in cities and counties across the United States. Those salad bars then would serve as demonstration models for increasing children’s fresh fruit and vegetable consumption.

“Research has shown that children significantly increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables when given a variety of choices in a school salad bar,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice-president of nutrition and health for the U.F.P.A.F. “When offered multiple fruit and vegetable choices, children respond by trying new items, incorporating greater variety into their diets, and increasing their daily consumption of fruits and vegetables.

“By increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables through salad bars in schools, we can provide kids a personal experience about making choices that can shape behavior far beyond the school lunch line. Children learn to make decisions that carry over outside of school, providing a platform for a lifetime of healthy snack and meal choices.”

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