A Fat Nation
America's `supersize' diet is fattier and sweeter--and deadlier
By the time Katie was 7, she weighed nearly 130 pounds, about twice the normal body weight for her height and age. "I'm extremely obese, morbidly obese," says Young. "I'm diabetic. I have hypertension, and I saw my daughter moving in the same direction. I knew I had to do something." Young's health insurance plan refused to pay for obesity treatment for Katie and would cover only a minimal number of lab tests. Young borrowed the $2,500 to sign the family up for a childhood obesity treatment program at Louisiana State University called Committed to Kids.
The brainchild of an exercise physiologist, a nutritionist, and a psychologist from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at LSU, the program focuses on lifestyle change, not dieting. It encourages eating lots of fruits and vegetables, limiting portion sizes, having no snack foods or sweets at home, and setting realistic goals for limiting food and increasing exercise. Katie has successfully lost 26 pounds, and she has also grown taller and added muscle, but she still has about 20 more pounds to lose.
In a few weeks Katie begins the school year, a difficult time for weight control. "Kids spend 48 percent of their waking hours in school and three hours a night on homework," says LSU's Melinda Sothern, a founder of Committed to Kids. "It's too much sitting. Homework is the No. 1 reason parents and kids say they can't fit exercise into their day."
The combination of homework and television can be a toxic one for kids like Katie. A large number of studies document that the incidence of obesity is lowest among children who watch one hour a day of television or less and greatest for those who watch four or more. A study published in Pediatrics in June showed that 40 percent of 1-to-5-year-olds had a television set in their bedrooms. Even among active preschoolers, those who watched more were more likely to be overweight.
The TV factor. Scientists are not sure whether it's the sedentary nature of television viewing, food consumption in front of the TV, food advertising--or all of them--that promote obesity. "But more things are beginning to point toward food consumption," says William Dietz, director of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. TV prompts kids to eat, says Dietz. A study in last week's Lancet shows that U.S. children see about 10 food commercials during every hour of TV they watch. In the Young household now, Katie must "buy" her TV time with 30-minute coupons her mother issues as payment for finishing her homework in after-school care.
In two years, Katie will go to middle school, and "she's going to have more access to food outside of my control," her mother says. Indeed, CDC studies show that 73.9 percent of middle and junior high schools have either vending machines or snack bars where high-calorie foods and soft drinks are sold, and 98.2 percent of senior high schools do. More than 23 percent of schools allow companies to advertise candy, fast foods, or soft drinks through distribution of coupons for free or reduced-cost foods. More than 20 percent of schools serve brand-name fast foods, often as part of the USDA-funded National School Lunch Program. The USDA's Stanley Garnett, director of Child Nutrition Programs, says the agency cannot legally restrict the use of fast foods as long as "nutritional standards averaged over a week are met" in the USDA-funded programs.