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Experts combine research with policy to reduce childhood obesity

UC President Janet Napolitano speaks at the Childhood Obesity Conference as Lorrene Ritchie (left) and Patricia Crawford look on.
At the 8th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference last week, UC President Janet Napolitano spoke about UC's Global Food Initiative (GFI), which aims to “to put the world on a pathway to feed itself in ways that are nutritious and sustainable.”

It was the first time a UC president has taken part in the long-running and nationally recognized gathering, noted the director of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI), Lorrene Ritchie.

“I think it demonstrates her commitment to the Global Food Initiative and the work we do at UC ANR,” Ritchie said.

During her remarks, Napolitano said it was fitting for her to speak at the conference as it coincided with the one-year anniversary of the Global Food Initiative, a sweeping effort involving all UC campuses and UC ANR that was inspired by many of the same concerns addressed by conference participants.

“As we meet here in San Diego today, a billion people — most but not all of them in the developing world — suffer from chronic hunger or serious micronutrient deficiencies,” Napolitano said. “Another half billion — primarily in the industrialized nations of the world, like the United States — suffer from obesity.”

Since the biennial conference's inception, Patricia Crawford, UC ANR Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist, and other members of NPI have been involved in its planning. Crawford announced she is “passing the baton” to Ritchie to guide the conference moving forward.

More than 1,700 nutritionists and other experts on children's health attended the San Diego gathering June 29 – July 2. In addition to the NPI, the conference was hosted by the California Department of Public Health, California Department of Education, the California Endowment and Kaiser Permanente.

NPI hosted a preconference workshop on June 29 to bridge the gap between research and policy regarding the federal nutrition assistance programs and the Dietary Guidelines, which reach more Americans than any other nutrition policy.

“The preconference session provided a rare opportunity for policymakers and administrators, nutrition researchers, advocates, and funders to sit together to identify today's key policy issues and propose research to inform future policy debates and developments,” said Kenneth Hecht, NPI director of policy. “Participants also focused on another extremely important question: How to improve communications in both directions between researchers and policymakers.”

Chelsea Clinton at the obesity conference.
At the opening plenary session, Chelsea Clinton, vice-chair of The Clinton Foundation, talked about projects her family's foundation work to improve children's health and literacy.

“Childhood obesity is a national security challenge. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said that very clearly in 2013,” Clinton said. “In New York City, where I live, the New York City Fire Department and Police Department have said they are worried they won't be able recruit enough people to fill their ranks if obesity rates continue.”

To help address the problem, the Clinton Foundation along with the American Heart Association established the Alliance for a Healthier Generation 10 years ago. Because of the program, nearly 300 California schools have made changes significantly reducing overweight among children.

“Grateful to all @ObesityConffor for a great morning talking about @HealthierGenand for everything you do to help children be healthy!#COC15,” Clinton tweeted after her presentation.

During a workshop session, NPI's Ritchie and other panelists discussed the importance of policies and standards for healthy alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages for children in childcare settings. Crawford and other panelists presented data on childhood obesity trends and racial/ethnic disparities in California and discussed the health and financial consequences. They also addressed the cost-effectiveness of national and state excise taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and labels to inform consumers of the health risks of consuming sugary drinks.

The panel discussion with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, left, USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon, and NPI director of policy Kenneth Hecht.
Hecht moderated a conversation on policy with former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon. The two influential figures discussed the growth of the federal nutrition assistance programs over 40 years and reflected on obstacles overcome and successes achieved. Harkin was honored at the conference with a lifetime achievement award for public service.

Hecht also moderated a panel on local and national initiatives that are linking farm fresh produce to food bank recipients. NPI researcher Elizabeth Campbell, who participated in the discussion with a local farmer, a food bank employee and a public health anti-hunger advocate, said food banks should have policies to guide the nutritional quality of their inventory.

During the closing plenary, First Lady Michelle Obama sent video greetings to the Childhood Obesity Conference attendees to praise them for their work and encourage them to continue to fight to protect children's health.

PowerPoint presentations from the conference are available online. Photos and postconference information can be seen on Facebook and Twitter and with the hashtag #COC15.

Posted on Thursday, July 9, 2015 at 5:12 PM

Scientists ask USDA to add water to MyPlate

The UC Nutrition Policy Institute would like MyPlate to include an icon for water, such as the one shown above.
The brightly colored divided plate that lays out the USDA's model for healthy eating needs one little tweak, says the director of the UC Nutrition Policy Institute Lorrene Ritchie. Don't take anything away, but add H20.

Ritchie has joined with dozens of nutrition and health professionals around the country to ask that the USDA put water onto MyPlate.

“We don't have all the answers to overcoming obesity, but the research on sugar-sweetened beverages is very clear,” Ritchie said. “When you drink beverages like soda, sports drinks or punch, the sugar gets absorbed very rapidly and the body doesn't recognize the calories. The result is excess calories and weight gain.”

The USDA introduced MyPlate in 2011 to reflect the message of its Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. Federal law requires that the guidelines be reviewed, updated and published every five years.

“USDA officials say that, in order to change MyPlate, there must be more information in the dietary guidelines about water,” Ritchie said. “We are working through the public comment process to ask the advisory board to promote water as the beverage of choice.”

The ultimate goal – a new water icon on MyPlate – is important because of its high visibility. MyPlate is found on elementary school classroom walls and cereal boxes; at community gardens and the grocery store produce aisle.

Drinking plain water is important for child nutrition and obesity prevention.
In preparing for a visit with USDA officials at their Washington, D.C., headquarters, Christina Hecht, UC Nutrition Policy Institute coordinator, asked UC Cooperative Extension specialists in California for input on MyPlate. Their enthusiasm was unanimous.

“They see MyPlate as the face of the dietary guidelines and are very supportive of using the image as a teaching tool,” Hecht said. “They also supported the idea of adding a symbol for water.”

She shared the California educators' thoughts on MyPlate with her USDA contacts. “When they get a story from the field, it really matters to them,” Hecht said.

Ritchie and her colleagues around the country submitted a “Best of Science” letter to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee imploring them to strengthen the language for drinking water.

“Current research indicates that children, in particular, are subject to ‘voluntary dehydration' from low intake of plain water,” the letter says. “Between 2005 and 2010, more than a quarter of children aged 4 to 13 years old in the U.S. did not have a drink of plain water on two consecutive days.”

Instead, they are drinking sugary beverages. National surveys in the early 2000s found that, on any given day, 84 percent of 2- to 5-year-old children drank sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas, sports drinks and fruit punch. The calories amounted to 11 percent of the children's total energy intake.

Lorrene Ritchie, director of the UC Nutrition Policy Insitute, testifies at a congressional hearing about strategies to reduce childhood obesity in the U.S.
Since the 2010 Dietary Guidelines were issued, knowledge about the magnitude of risk and extent of adverse effects from sugar-sweetened beverages has increased. The Best of Science letter outlines for the advisory board many of the proven consequences of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption in America:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages – including sodas, juice drinks, pre-sweetened tea and coffee drinks, and fortified or energy drinks – are among the top sources of calories for children and adolescents.
  • Between the late 1960s and early 2000s the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages doubled.
  • While the American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugars per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men, the average U.S. consumption is 17 teaspoons per day.
  • Low-income populations have higher intakes of sugar-sweetened beveragesand Latino children drink more of them than white children.
  • Cardiovascular disease, present in more than one-third of American adults, is now understood to be exacerbated by the inflammatory effects of excess sugar consumption.
  • Excess sugar consumption is a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a precursor to diabetes.
To learn more, read the Best of Science Letter signed by 14 prominent nutrition educators from around the nation by clicking the link below.
Posted on Wednesday, January 7, 2015 at 7:15 AM

The devil -- er, bacteria -- made me do it

Gut bacteria may affect both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want.
Many people worry about the outside of their gut – watching their weight and suffering through sit-ups in search of six-pack abs.

Research from UC San Francisco is showing that we also should pay attention to what's inside the gut.

Gut bacteria may affect both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want, and often are driving us toward obesity, according to an article published this month in the journal BioEssays.

Researchers concluded from a review of recent scientific literature that microbes influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way.

“Bacteria within the gut are manipulative,” said corresponding author on the paper Carlo Maley, director of the Center for Evolution and Cancer with the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCSF. “There is a diversity of interests represented in the microbiome, some aligned with our own dietary goals, and others not.”

We also can influence this diverse community of microbes, collectively known as the gut microbiome, by altering what we ingest, Maley said, with measurable changes in the microbiome within 24 hours of diet change.

“Our diets have a huge impact on microbial populations in the gut,” Maley said. “It's a whole ecosystem, and it's evolving on the time scale of minutes.”

The gut is a growing field for research.

Michael Fischbach, a UCSF assistant professor of bioengineering and therapeutic sciences, studies gut bacteria and how they could help reveal the causes and new treatments for Crohn's disease and obesity.

“When I look at a person, I don't just see a warm, shiny human being,” Fischbach said. “I see bacteria crawling all over you and living on every surface that's exposed and not exposed in your entire body. And you're lucky that they're there because these bacteria do very important things for you. They make your immune system function properly. They help you digest foods. And they produce important chemicals that serve as vitamins for your body.”

With advancements in genetic sequencing technology, Fischbach and colleagues are mining gut bacteria for natural products – small molecules from microbes – that could hold the key for treating diseases.

“You used to have to travel to the coast of Palau to mine the ocean sediment for drugs,” Fischbach said. “Now we can just check our gut!”

Fischbach discussed his gut research with collaborator Justin Sonnenburg, a Stanford University microbiologist with degrees from UC Davis and UC San Diego, at the recent New York Times Health for Tomorrow conference at UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center.

“The beauty of being in basic research is you don't know where you're going to end up,” Fischbach said after their panel presentation. “It's nice to be on a journey where you don't know where the ship lands. I hope it's going to improve human health.”

Read more:
-Do gut bacteria rule our minds?, UCSF
-Our microbiome may be looking out for itself, New York Times
-The next frontier of medicine, Slate
-Culturing for cures, UCSF

Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at 10:02 AM
  • Author: Alec Rosenberg
Tags: gut (1), obesity (24)

Childhood obesity: It's a disease

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.

One serving of Ragu has as much sugar as 3 Oreo cookies

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?

Posted on Tuesday, June 25, 2013 at 11:37 AM
  • Author: Marissa Palin
Tags: childhood (1), epidemic (1), fast food (1), health (2), nutrition (12), obesity (24), obesity prevention (1), processed food (1)

Follow your bliss (point)

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael Moss is best known for coining the term “pink slime,” a reference to a meat additive that, thanks to Moss’s reporting, had a particularly bad PR day in 2009, when his high gross-out factor exposé was published in the New York Times. Products containing the cringe-inducing substance were subsequently banished from many grocery stores and schools.

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.” 

Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at 7:31 AM
  • Author: Ann Brody Guy
Tags: atkins center (1), childhood obesity (1), cwh (1), food (4), marion nestle (1), michael moss (1), obesity (24)

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