Posts Tagged: obesity
I spent last week at the Childhood Obesity Conference in Long Beach representing UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. I had heard that obesity was an epidemic. I had heard it's an issue that needs to be tackled. But I hadn't ever heard the extent of it before.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Adolescent obesity has tripled. In 2010, more than one-third of children and adolescents were obese. Last week, the American Medical Association went as far as to declare obesity a disease. The CDC has stated this is a direct result of caloric imbalance - children aren't expending enough calories, and they're eating too many.
In his keynote address, Michael Moss, investigative reporter with the New York Times and author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, mentioned that a half cup of tomato sauce has as much sugar as several Oreo cookies. I researched this, and sure enough according to MyFitnessPal, a leading food tracking software and app, a half cup of Ragu Roasted Garlic Pasta Sauce has 11g of sugar, while a serving of three Oreo cookies has 12g of sugar. As Moss mentioned, kids are taught to expect sweetness in everything they eat. According to him, the food industry is exploiting the biology of children. No wonder we can't get our kids to eat their vegetables.
This reminds me of a video clip I saw on YouTube of Jamie Oliver's television show Food Revolution. He goes into a classroom, hoping to have kids identify fresh vegetables, only to discover they don't know the difference between a tomato and a potato.
How did we get to this point? How have we become so disconnected from the food we eat and the things we put into our body? How did we get to a point where Oreos, Happy Meals and Cheez-Its were cool, but vegetables and fruits weren't? And most importantly, what do we do about it?
Is this next video a sign of where we are headed?
In his most recent book, Salt, Sugar, Fat, Moss shined daylight on the happier sounding, but no less alarming phrase “bliss point,” a food industry term for the exact combination of those titular ingredients that stimulates our brain’s pleasure center and makes us — and our kids — crave these highly engineered products, from spaghetti sauce to Doritos.
The book is an investigative reporting piece that exposes the cold, hard scientific and business calculations made in the highly competitive food industry. But with his appearance as the opening keynote address at the 7th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference, taking place in Long Beach, Calif., this week (June 18-20), Moss places his research squarely in the middle of its public-health context.
That context will be drawn by the country's preeminent experts on children’s health, who will present their current thinking on topics such as strategies for protecting children from food industry marketing tactics, how we can use health care reform to address childhood obesity, and how zoning and the built environment can have positive influence on the children’s health. The Prevention Institute’s Julie Sims will talk about innovative messaging that promotes policy change, like in this video:
The conference is designed for public health practitioners, researchers, health workers and educators, and nutrition professionals. They will be treated to an event bookended by two best-selling authors — Marion Nestle gives the closing keynote.
Nestle, an NYU professor and author of Food Politics and What to Eat, will close the conference with a talk on how a focus on policy can reverse current obesity trends. She will provide examples of how advocacy for environmental and policy changes that promote healthier diets and more physical activity “can be linked to positive sustainable action,” according the conference website.
Ultimately, the goal of the conference is nothing short of wiping out childhood obesity.
“Conferences such as this are crucial to creating and maintaining the movement to eliminate childhood obesity,” said Ces Murphy, conference planning chair and a project manager at California Project LEAN at the California Department of Public Health, one of the conference’s co-sponsors. “By sharing information, leveraging resources and creating partnerships that lead to positive sustainable change, we will accelerate the progress of reaching this goal.”
Pat Crawford, director of UC Berkeley’s Atkins Center for Weight and Health, is one of the founders of the conference and has an integral role in shaping it each year. Crawford says that the work is starting to pay off. "The effort to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic has expanded exponentially during the past few years, and we are beginning to see some of the positive outcomes from these efforts.”
The biennial Childhood Obesity Conference is taking place in Long Beach June 18-20. Book-ended by two world-class keynote speakers — Michael Moss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, and Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of food studies and public health, and author of Food Politics and What to Eat — the event promises a no-holds-barred, systemic look at the problems of obesity in all their complexity.
Public outreach on the part of dynamic writers and activists like Moss and Nestle is critical and gets much-needed information, messages, and questions out in the world. But the hard science, where many of the breakthroughs will take place that will advance understanding and treatments, is hidden in laboratories across UC, where faculty and their graduate students and post-doctoral researchers toil away in obscurity.
One such discovery broke out of the lab and into the news just in time for this past holiday season, when UC Berkeley molecular toxicology professor Hei Sook Sol published a paper unlocking the molecular mechanisms of how our bodies convert dietary carbohydrates into fat. The finding has the potential to be an early step in development of treatment for fatty liver and other obesity-related diseases.
For sneak peak at where the next breakthrough might come from, browse the research currently taking place at in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology at UC Berkeley.
Food prepared at home is slowly getting healthier, but food prepared away from home is not, according to a new study by the USDA Economic Research Service.
- Food prepared away from home accounts for 32 percent of Americans’ caloric intake and 41 percent of food expenditures. (Food prepared away from home includes restaurants, fast-food establishments, and take-out or delivery meals.)
- Americans increased their away-from-home share of calories from 18 percent to 32 percent in the last three decades, mainly from table-service and fast-food restaurants.
- Caloric intake rose over the last three decades from 1,875 calories per person per day to 2,002 calories per day.
- Food prepared at home became significantly lower in fat content and richer in calcium over the past three decades; food prepared away from home did not.
- Food prepared away from home is higher in saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol, and lower in dietary fiber than food prepared at home.
Poor diets contribute to obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other health conditions. The trend toward eating out is expected to continue, so Americans need to learn how their food is prepared, and what’s in it. Only then will they have the information to make wise food choices.
Consumers should be health-savvy when they eat away from home. Don’t be afraid to ask for nutritional information or preparation methods, and don’t assume that restaurants (even high-end restaurants) serve healthy food. Restaurants serve what consumers like — fat, salt, sugar and lots of calories. The American Heart Association offers a variety of very useful information for dining out, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest has guidelines on labeling at fast-food and chain restaurants.
Some fast-food restaurants have pamphlets available with nutritional information — it’s surprising to find how high in calories and fat some menu items are. Beware, though, of what they consider a serving size — it may be less than what is purchased as a single serving. A report in the Los Angeles Times notes that few entrees at fast-food restaurants meet the USDA-recommended limits for calories, sodium, saturated fat and fat combined.
Opt for healthier choices, and don’t feel compelled to “clean your plate” at meals. Some people routinely eat no more than half the restaurant meal, saving the other half for another meal. Ask your restaurants to serve healthier options — restaurants will respond only if consumers commit to making healthy food choices.
There is hope. Americans may be getting the message about dietary fat — consumption of fat has dropped from 86 grams of total fat per person per day to 75 grams per day over the last three decades. But, on average, food prepared away from home still has more fat (37 percent) than food prepared at home (30 percent).
Due to the increase in consumption of food prepared away from home, we may see more of a push to include nutritional and health information on menus (see the proposed FDA guidelines). Whether this impacts consumer food choices remains to be seen. But by learning some basics about food and nutrition, you can make healthier choices, even when eating at restaurants.
The University of California offers many free and low-cost publications on food, health and nutrition. Here are a few:
- Nutrition and health information sheets – free downloads on fat, fiber, calcium, cholesterol, energy drinks, and other topics.
- Lunchbox series – free downloads on healthy lunches for preschool children.
- Healthalicious cooking – free after-school curricula on food and physical activity.
- Food, nutrition, and health publications in the UC ANR catalog: some free, some with a cost.
- Free nutrition publications from the Department of Nutrition at UC Davis.
America’s rising obesity rates are exacting a high cost on society. In looking for solutions, many people blame federal farm subsidies for the current obesity problems. The Farm Bill is up for reauthorization this year. As Congress considers changes, I think it is important to understand that the Farm Bill is not to blame for America’s increasing weight gain.
It may seem obvious that subsidies make certain foods cheaper, therefore contributing to overconsumption, but every serious analysis of the relationship by economists has found the notion untrue. In fact, U.S. farm policies have had generally modest and mixed effects on prices and quantities of farm commodities; the overall effect on the prices paid by U.S. consumers for food has been negligible; consequently, eliminating farm policies would have a negligible influence on dietary patterns and obesity.
Farm subsidies have at times resulted in lower U.S. prices of some farm commodities, such as certain food grains or feed grains, and consequently lower costs of producing breakfast cereal, bread, or livestock products. But in these cases, the price-depressing (and consumption-enhancing) effect of subsidies has been contained (or even reversed) by the imposition of additional policies that restricted acreage or production. In addition, for more than a decade, about half of the total subsidy payments have provided limited incentives to increase production because the amounts paid to producers were based on past acreage and yields rather than current production. Moreover, for the commodities that are subject to U.S. import barriers, the effect of the policy is to increase farm and food prices domestically, providing a disincentive to consume foods that use these commodities as ingredients. Trade barriers that apply to imported sugar, dairy, orange juice and beef cause the prices of these agricultural commodities to increase, and thereby increase the cost and discourage consumption of foods that use these commodities.
What about corn? Farm subsidies are responsible for the growth in the use of corn to produce high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a caloric sweetener, but not in the way it is often suggested. The culprit here is not corn subsidies; rather, it is sugar policy that has restricted imports, driven up the U.S. price of sugar and encouraged consumers and food manufacturers to replace sugar with alternative caloric sweeteners, especially HFCS. Combining the sugar policy with the corn policy, the net effect of farm subsidies has been to increase the price of caloric sweeteners generally, and to discourage total consumption while causing a shift in sweetener use between sugar and HFCS. This discouragement has been enhanced recently by U.S. biofuels policy. The current U.S. ethanol policy benefits U.S. corn growers by driving up the demand for corn as feedstock. This effective subsidy to corn growers much more than offsets any impact of other farm policies that might increase the availability of corn for use in food and livestock feed. So the overall effect of the full set of policies is to make all of the corn-based food products more expensive, not less expensive to consumers.
Even if the effects of policy on the prices of farm commodities were large and in a direction that would contribute to obesity, the ultimate impacts on food prices would be comparatively small. Farm commodities used as ingredients represent a small share of the total cost of retail food products, and this share has been shrinking for all farm commodities over the past three decades. On average the farm commodity cost share is approximately 20 percent, but it varies widely: for grains, sugar, and oilseeds, it is less than 10 percent; for soda, a food product that is often associated with obesity, the share is approximately 2 percent.
U.S. farm policies might well be seen as unfair and inefficient. But whether we like these policies or not for other reasons, their effects on obesity are negligible. Farm subsidies are a red herring in the obesity context just as obesity is a red herring in the context of farm subsidy policy. Our careful quantitative analysis of these issues indicates that U.S. farm subsidy policies, for the most part, have not made food commodities significantly cheaper and have not had a significant effect on caloric consumption. In fact, eliminating all farm subsidies, including those provided indirectly by trade barriers, may, if anything, lead to an increase in annual per capita consumption of calories and an increase in body weight. Farm policies have more likely slowed the rise in obesity in the United States—but any such effects must be small. Compared with other factors, the policy-induced differences in relative prices of farm commodities have played only a tiny role in determining excess food consumption and obesity in the United States.
Julian Alston is a Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, and a member of the University of California’s Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics.