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Overweight Children...the greatest threat to world health

Overweight Children – Joel Fuhrman, M.D., discusses the greatest threat to world health – obesity.

According to prominent health authorities from around the world, the greatest threat to world health is not bird flu, nuclear arsenals, hurricanes or global warming. The greatest threat to world health is obesity.

The weight of Americans continues to soar as the (cheese, sausage, biscuits and) gravy train keeps rolling across America. Last year, 31 states reported an increase in obesity, an astonishing fact when you consider that Americans already have experienced decades of continuous belly growth.

The number of Americans who are overweight has reached epidemic proportions, and it is a public health crisis that both health care providers and the general public are going to have to face. Health care costs have been rising and will continue to rise as the health of our population deteriorates. Currently, 61 percent of the U.S. population is overweight or obese and, there-fore, at increased risk for a number of diseases that are associated with increased body fat. As health care costs for Americans continue to rise, more and more jobs will be farmed out overseas, increasing unemployment, and weakening our economy.

CHILDHOOD OBESITY
The most frightening problem is the skyrocketing rate of obesity among children. Excess weight makes them much more prone to chronic diseases as they grow older, which will shorten their lives by many years. The October 2005 issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology states that 25 percent of U.S. kids are overweight, and the Centers for Disease Control predicts 50 percent of children will be overweight by 2010. As parents prepare fewer and fewer wholesome meals and children eat more often in shopping malls, school cafeterias, and fast food joints, most of the caloric intake in the United States now comes from processed foods.

Today’s children have the dubious honor of belonging to the first generation in history that will have a lower life expectancy than their parents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted that 30-40 percent of today’s children will have diabetes in their lifetimes if current trends continue.

About 20 percent of U.S. children are now significantly overweight, and more than 2 million U.S. children ages 12-19 have a pre-diabetic condition called impaired glucose intolerance or impaired fasting glucose. This means their fasting blood sugars are above 100. More importantly, children with impaired fasting glucose are very likely to develop diabetes in the years to come. Dr. Francine Kaufman, head of the Diabetes Center at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, said about 25 percent of the diabetic children treated there have type 2 diabetes, compared with just 4 percent a decade ago (a 600 percent increase).

FAST FOOD FRENZY
Researchers from around the world recognize that convenience foods, fast food, and processed foods are the fuel feeding this low-nutrient-food eating frenzy. World health authorities now consider advertisements for processed foods aimed at kids to be a major health threat, and experts at a world health conference announced that governments should impose bans on junk food advertising aimed directly at children. Unfortunately, no one expects that to happen because of opposition from food industry groups that wield far more influence with politicians then scientists.

“There is going to be a political fight over this for some time. But, of course, we shouldn’t advertise junk food to children that makes them fat,” says Dr. Boyd Swinburn, a member of the International Obesity Task Force. Dr. Claude Bouchard, President of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, says his group supported banning advertising designed to encourage poor eating habits by children, but laments that this policy position is unlikely to have any immediate effect on governments regulators.

PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITY
I don’t think that advertisers and food manufacturers are the primary culprits when it comes to childhood obesity or that curtailing their advertisements is the solution. I blame parents. Overweight, convenience-food-addicted parents who have hundreds of rationalizations why it is okay to eat junk food, processed foods, and fast foods bear the primary responsibility. It is they who buy the ruinous foods and allow their children to eat them. Young children do not shop and purchase the junk food; their parents do it for them. It is time for parents to say no to unhealthful foods, and to explain to their children why these foods are dangerous.

We are all familiar with the maxim you are what you eat. Well, you eat what you buy, so you are what you buy. Parents need to make better buying choices.

I realize that it is hard to make sure your children are supplied with healthful food. It is much easier to bring a box of doughnuts to the soccer game than to buy and wash a bag of grapes. It is easier to pick up a couple of pizzas or cheeseburgers with fries than to husk and steam some corn on the cob, cook a soup, or slice a watermelon.

I know that it is much easier to do what the other parents in the community do. But is it worth it to poison your child’s future just to save a little time or inconvenience?

I understand that children who are addicted to junk food can be very demanding. They will argue and plead for sugary drinks and salty, saturated-fat-laden foods, and it will take considerable effort to wean them from these bad eating habits. But if you don’t make the effort, if you give in and let them have what they want, you are sentencing them to serious problems like diabetes and breast cancer down the road. If you are going to let them have unhealthful snacks, fast foods, ice cream, and burgers, you (and they) better not care that these eating habits very often come with a side order of heart attacks and strokes.

If you are going to let your kids eat badly, you might as well let them smoke cigarettes, drink whiskey, and snort cocaine, too. That will keep them busy and out of your hair.

HEAVY DRINKERS
The average consumer drinks 56 gallons of soda pop a year, and 20 percent of our nations’ one-and-two year olds now drink soda pop. Did watching too many commercials on TV do this to the one year olds, or was it the ignorance of the parents? This war is not going to be won by fewer commercials for junk food on television. The problem is that parents can’t force behaviors on their children that they do not adhere to themselves. How can a parent tell a child not to eat a doughnut for breakfast while having a doughnut and coffee for breakfast themselves? It simply won’t do to say, “Johnny, you have to eat your broccoli, sunflower seeds, and strawberries,” while mommy eats macaroni and cheese with bacon gravy, with pie a’ la mode for dessert. This situation is not going to be remedied by fewer TV advertisements. The problem largely rests with parents.

The health religion in modern America is based on the beliefs that doctors and drugs are the solution to all health problems, that diet does not affect health, and that genetics (rather than lifestyle and environmental toxicity) are largely responsible for the health crises in our future. Until this changes, there is little likelihood that we will have a chance to save the children in our country. Let’s face it. Unhealthful food is addicting, and most parents are not about to start eating healthfully. Why then should we expect them to force healthful eating on their children?

JUNK FOOD NATION
We have created a junk-food nation, and I don’t believe the solution is going to come from government. I believe the answer is going to come from the population, a growing population of parents that are going to take this war into the streets and be willing to confront other parents, teachers and authorities. The starting place is to educate individuals of all ages and make sure teachers and parents understand why it is so critical that we eat healthfully—and it is not just about losing weight.

It will be an uphill battle:

• Nine out of ten schools offer junk food to kids.
• The typical American teenage boy gets 10 percent of his calories from soda.
• Vending machines are present in 43 percent of elementary schools and 97 percent of high schools.
• In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control declared obesity the most important public health issue.

SCIENTIFIC APPROACH
My book, Disease-Proof Your Child, lays out the fascinating science explaining how our adult cancer epidemic is largely caused by what we ate in childhood. This is important news — and the scientific evidence supporting it is overwhelming. After skyrocketing cancer rates for the last 50 years and billions of dollars of wasted money on cancer research without tangible results, medical research scientists have finally discovered the main cause of this cancer explosion — unhealthful eating habits in childhood.

This message, so critical for our nation’s future, has still not been embraced by the media. It is not trumpeted on the front page of Newsweek or The New York Times, no television shows are discussing or debating these issues, and it is not being aired on public service announcements. It is not just that people in the media are themselves addicted to unhealthful foods; it is also that they are beholden to their advertisers who pay the bills. I have had multiple opportunities for nationwide media exposure blocked by advertising interests.

I support the recommendation by scholars that harmful advertising should be prevented and that schools should start helping children establish a lifetime of good eating behaviors, and I will be there to help. However, I am not sure that this will solve the problem.

On a recent lecture tour around the country, I took a few trips to lunchrooms of the local schools. As you would expect, the school cafeterias served the typical standard American diet, but what startled me was the abysmally bad food the children brought from home. Children were eating sandwiches their parents made with bologna and other processed meats — smeared with mayonnaise — on white bread. Many students also brought bags of chips and soda. Kids were downing little packets of sugar straight from the pack. I was astounded. The kids were on a junk-food feeding frenzy, and most of it was packed by their parents.

MINOR IMPROVEMENTS FAIL
In spite of all the hoopla about improving school lunch programs, there is little evidence that any of the small changes are helping kids get healthier or lose weight. Even minor attempts, such as replacing white bread with whole wheat and taking a little fat out of the cheese, are met with resistance. For example, Dr. Arthur Agaston, the author of the South Beach Diet (a book that I do not recommend), used his fame and wealth to spearhead an initiative to improve food choices in a lower-income school district in Florida. In spite of his admirable intentions, the program did not achieve much success.

The problem is that the kids get mixed messages. Even though most of the changes to the lunch menu were small and insignificant, parents still did not support the initiative. It is very common for parents to actually sabotage any progress made in the classroom. As reported in the August 20, 2006, The New York Times Magazine, some parents brought their fourth graders hamburgers, fries and milkshakes, while other students were eating turkey burgers on whole wheat buns. Candy and cookies were being sold as fund-raisers and biscuits with gravy were being sold by the Parent Teacher Organization. The parents defended the rights of their children to eat junk food.

Unhealthful eating has permeated our culture, and it won’t be easy to undo. Parents can sabotage any influence of the school lunch team, and the children will snub their noses at the initiative unless their parents are strong supporters of the healthful changes.

DO PARENTS REALLY LOVE THEIR CHILDREN
Correct me if I am wrong. Isn’t it the parents who bring in the ice cream and cupcakes into the classroom on holidays and on their kids’ birthdays? Isn’t it the parents who shove a piece of food onto kids’ plates, and who sell cookies and cakes at every school event to raise money? What example do the Girl Scouts set by asking kids to sell candy and cookies? Why don’t they just sell cigarettes to raise money?

Parents serve the cancer-causing diet to their own kids at home at every meal. I joke around at lectures and ask the audience, “Raise your hand if you want your child to get cancer.” Nobody raises their hand. I taunt them, “You guys are lying. How come all the most powerful cancer-causing foods are the ones served on the kids’ menus at restaurants in this town? And look at what is offered to kids for lunch here. Instead of calling macaroni and cheese, processed meats and cheeses, fried chicken nuggets and french fries, hot dogs, and sugary cereals kid-friendly, why don’t we call them cancer-friendly. These should be the last foods you would want to feed to your children.” Parents obviously do not realize that their children’s growing cells are formed by the foods placed in their mouths.

Although parents love their children, their ability to think rationally is taken over by their addictions. People don’t want to give up the foods they love and are addicted to. People love their children, but apparently, not as much as they love their food. They like the appeal of the Atkins and South Beach diets; they like that they can have all that meat, cheese, and butter and still lose weight. You can always find some huckster claiming that, “Saturated fat really doesn’t promote heart disease and cancer. It is just a lie by the authorities in power. It is really fruits and vegetables that cause heart attacks. Those deadly, high glycemic carrots are the villains.”

This is the nonsense that sells books and pleases the media darlings. The most popular stuff is always some version of “Eat anything you want and still lose weight. You don’t have to diet, you don’t have to eat healthfully, you don’t have to give up any of your food addictions, and you don’t even have to exercise to lose weight.” Fads, gimmicks, promises, and magic pills sell best.

While I was waiting in my car to pick up my daughter at school, I noted a group of high school students drinking soda from large, 2-liter bottles and smoking by the edge of the school parking lot. Who led these kids in the wrong direction dooming them to diabetes, lung cancer and other serious medical tragedies? What parents allowed their children to do this to themselves? I can assure you the parents of those kids are not the ones with the best parenting skills; they are much more likely to be smokers, serve soda with their fast food dinners and spend little quality time with their kids.

Yes, I am sure most parents really love their children, but most of them don’t yet have the knowledge to know that this is a fight worth fighting. They haven’t yet connected the dots between the diets kids eat and diseases in later life. For those of us who know better, we must fight for our children and fight junk-food terrorism at every turn.

WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?
First, we must start in our own homes, to develop some basic skills and make a cohesive family unit against dangerous food items. Then we can move further out in the battlefield and enlist allies to fight with us.

We all want to raise healthy children, whether our children are overweight or not. We have to make healthful food taste great and make it fun. We have to make our children proud that their family eats healthfully.

Set aside time around mealtimes for the family to gather together. Try to eat together as a family, involving the children with food preparation. For many, preparing food and cooking as a family can satisfy a hunger deeper than the physical. It fulfills an urge to create, to express affection for family and friends, and it can launch an adventure through interesting recipes and new foods. Try to enlist the whole family to do this together. Then we have to start from the ground up and enlist allies in our communities. We must form groups of concerned parents in every school and town across the nation. Search for like-minded parents and form local groups to get the word out. Approach teachers, especially school health teachers (including the school nurse), and ask them to learn about these issues. Only after a significant number of parents join in the fight is it worthwhile to attempt to revamp school lunches and school curriculum.

Over time (and with much patience), there is a good chance you and your allies will be successful in getting junk food out of the classroom and off the athletic field. Your group can petition the schools not to have parents bring junk food to feed other children on birthdays or holidays. Society must recognize that junk food causes cancer and other serious conditions; it is not just about obesity. This is a serious problem in our nation that, at the present time, overwhelms drug use as enemy number one.

HOW TO HELP YOUR OVERWEIGHT CHILD
If you already have an overweight child, make some changes in your family life. To solve the problem of childhood obesity, we first need to change the parent’s behavior. This will require you to adopt a new way of thinking. As Albert Einstein said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Don’t make the major interaction with your child be about body weight. Interact about other issues.

Set up weekly family discussion meetings. Make an agenda for the meeting. All members can present topics for discussion. Discuss health issues as a family each week. Give each family member equal attention and equal concern and discuss the reasons for the new family health initiative and how all members will benefit. Do not focus more attention on the overweight family member. Study and discuss parts of my book Disease-Proof Your Child or other valuable health sources at family meetings. Have the children participate.

Listen to the audiobook of Disease Proof Your Child. Parents tell me that when they listen to the audiobook as they ride around in the car, it rubs off on the kids and spurs the discussion on dietary issues.

Plan fun, physical activities for the family. Devise solutions for more exercise for the whole family. Get involved with some type of physical activity, taking up a sport, hiking, running, climbing, or any other activity that involves movement. All must participate, not only the overweight child. Parents cannot just watch; they must model a healthy attitude about fitness and physical fun.

Make dietary goals that the entire family understands and can agree to adopt. Lay out an eating plan for dinners and school lunches that promotes long-term health.
Praise your child for issues not related to weight loss or gain. Make other issues as important, such as their school work, ethics, care for others, attitude towards learning, and development of skills.

Don’t reward behavior with unhealthy food. Show your kids and others that even treats on special occasions can be healthful and still taste good. Set an example at birthday parties. Get junk out of the house, and try to have the entire family supportive of this action. Creatively try to get the whole family to make the promise to “say NO to junk food.”

Used with permission from Dr. Fuhrman’s Healthy Times, September, 2006.

See article About Dr. Fuhrman for more information.

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