Posts Tagged ‘ health ’

Are Parents to Blame for Their Kids’ Obesity?

Monday, August 18th, 2014

A public service announcement (PSA) called “Rewind the Future,” launched as part of the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Strong4Life campaign, has garnered a lot of media attention—and considerable criticism—from health experts and parents alike. Although the PSA first surfaced in April 2012, it recently blew up on the internet, garnering an estimated six million views so far.

The PSA begins with a 32-year-old man named Jim who at 5’9” and 300 pounds is wheeled into a hospital while having a heart attack. After the doctor asks, “How the hell does this happen,” the video flashes backwards through the man’s life, attempting to illustrate how he got there. At various stages of Jim’s life, he’s shown eating ice cream and pancakes, being out of breath while playing with his kids or walking on a treadmill, hiding food in his room, playing video games, being rewarded candy by a teacher for earning good grades, being exposed to fast food by his parents (his dad orders pizza and his mom goes through a drive-thru), and acting up at meal time—and being pacified with French fries by his mother. The video ends with the message, “There’s still time to reverse the unhealthy habits our kids take into adulthood” and a link to the Strong4Life  website.

While the PSA has certainly sparked conversation, I was surprised when a Good Morning America poll inspired by the PSA revealed that eighty-one percent of viewers believe parents are to blame if their kids are obese. Only nineteen percent believe they are not. Although parents certainly play a major role in their children’s eating habits, I don’t believe pointing fingers and playing the blame game are the way to inspire meaningful change and better physical or psychological health in children. And while I appreciate the idea of prevention of obesity and its consequences, I don’t feel that blame and shame as suggested in this video are the answer.

Several experts have also spoken out against the PSA. In his recent blog post about the PSA, Yoni Freedhoff, MD, a family doctor and Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa refers to the PSA as “…everything that’s ugly about society’s attitudes towards weight boiled into a two-minute video treatise on how gluttony and sloth are to blame for obesity….oh, and add in lazy parents.” Although he agrees that parents have a role to play in all of this, he believes that fear and shame aren’t likely to get them there. He writes, “If guilt or shame had any lasting impact on weight or behavior, the world would be skinny, as guilt and shame are the two things that the world bends over backwards to ensure that people with weight never run short of.” Freedhoff also says that shaming the symptom without tackling the cause is likely only to add to the belief that fat shaming has a role to play in fixing the environment.

In another blog post, California-based registered dietitian nutritionist Aaron Flores wrote, “Just like many other ads, the sensational tone shames both parents and kids. It says nothing of the fact that health comes in different shapes and sizes. It makes it seem as if a parent makes one mistake feeding a child at an early age, they’ve doomed their child to an early death. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s this black and white thinking that leads us to think of foods as “good” or “bad” and lead to a life of dieting and binging.” Flores goes on to suggest that what parents need is to learn how to help children feel comfortable with all different kinds of foods and to nurture children’s self confidence with food and their body. He adds, “The last thing we need is to create environment that leads our children to hate their bodies, seek diets and (develop) unhealthy relationships with food.” Terrific points, no?

Although obesity, especially among children, is certainly something we all need to be concerned about and address, the findings of a recent study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University and published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggest that this video and others like it may not be the answer. The study found that stigmatizing obesity-related public health campaigns were no more likely to instill motivation for improving lifestyle behaviors among participants than campaigns that were more neutral.

As someone who always thinks you can attract more bees with honey, I, too, believe that rather than shocking or shaming parents, emphasizing what they can do more of—for example, offering more produce and cooking more at home, and choosing choose smaller portions while dining out—can empower them to feed their children better and help children actually eat better. It can also have a wonderful side effect of helping kids develop more healthful food, fitness and lifestyle behaviors they’ll carry with them as they increasingly make more decisions about what and how much to eat and move. Over time, this can help prevent many of the diet-related diseases many children, including those who are overweight, can develop as adults.

When asked about the rationale for the PSA, Stephanie Walsh, M.D., Medical Director, Strong4Life at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta wrote in an email, “The video was designed as part of a larger movement to empower parents” and to “remind parents of the power they have to influence their child’s health and help them to consider making small steps towards lifestyle change.” In response to criticisms that the video unfairly blames and shames parents, Dr. Walsh added, “This video was not designed to place the blame on parents or make people change; it was designed to make people consider making a change.” She also suggests that people must first realize the importance of changing a behavior before they actually make a change. Although she concedes that the video dramatizes the problem, she notes that the scenes depicting unhealthy habits are real examples of the struggles many of their patients and families face— reigning in screen time, motivating kids to be active and decreasing the amount of sugar their kids drink. She adds, “The video was designed to focus on behaviors that we, as parents, can control.”

What are your thoughts? Does this video go too far, or do you think it will inspire parents to help their kids eat and live better?

Image of mother and kids having a snack at a fast food restaurant via shutterstock.

Kids and Chronic Health Concerns
Kids and Chronic Health Concerns
Kids and Chronic Health Concerns

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New Nutrition Guidance for 2- to 11-Year-Old Children

Monday, August 4th, 2014

If you have or are otherwise involved in feeding children between the ages of 2 and 11, help is on the way. Just this month, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) released a new position paper to provide nutrition guidance to parents, pediatricians, educators and anyone who feeds 2- to 11-year-old children. According to the paper, children “should achieve optimal physical and cognitive development, maintain healthy weights, enjoy food, and reduce the risk of chronic disease through appropriate eating habits and participation in regular physical activity.”

Although AND acknowledges that obesity rates among children appear to be leveling off, it suggests that we still need to learn more to help children achieve and maintain healthy body weights, reduce the prevalence of food insecurity, help children consume more nutrients they tend to fall short on (including fiber, calcium, vitamin D, and potassium), and reduce diet-related risk factors that can develop early and make them more likely to develop chronic diseases such as  cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity, and osteoporosis.

Reviewing children’s eating habits, AND highlights some positive childhood nutrition trends that emerged between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010. For example, average intakes of calories, fat, sodium, and sugar* have gone down, whereas intakes of calcium and fiber went up. Despite these improvements, AND concludes that many American children ages 2 to 11 years fail to meet recommendations for fruit, vegetable, grain, or dairy groups; they also tend to exceed recommended intakes for total fat and saturated fat. To help reverse these trends, AND recommends that those who feed children receive education about mealtime behaviors that promote the adoption of healthier eating behaviors early in life. It also suggests working with, when possible, credible nutrition professionals including registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) and dietetic technicians, registered (DTRs) who are well-versed in child nutrition.

Although there are many factors that influence children’s eating habits—these include marketing food (such as fast food) and beverages generally and specifically to children, screen time, physical activity and exercise, sleep, and coping skills—parents can play a key role in helping children get off on the right foot when it comes to eating well and meeting nutrient needs. Here are some suggestions outlined in the AND position paper to help you get started:

  • Using a responsive feeding approach by which a parent or caregiver recognizes and responds to the child’s hunger and satiety cues;
  • Enjoying family meals—these may benefit children’s beliefs and attitudes about nutrition and reduce the risk of overweight;
  • Repeatedly exposing children to nutritious foods—offering children a variety of nutrient-rich foods often, even if they reject them at first, can encourage children to try and even learn to like new or previously disliked foods;
  • Modeling healthful eating habits—for example, eating fruits and vegetables in front of children can encourage them to do the same;
  • Offering a variety of nutritious foods without forcing children to eat them—this allows children to determine whether and how much to eat from what is offered.

For more information about how to help your children eat better, visit AND’s website here. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate can also help.

How do you help your 2 to 11-year-olds eat better?

How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids

Image of kid eating an apple via shutterstock.

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New Study Finds Perks for Organic Crops

Monday, July 28th, 2014

A new review published in the British Journal of Nutrition and covered in a recent New York Times article suggests that organically grown crops may have an edge over their conventionally produced counterparts.

In their analysis of 343 peer-reviewed studies published all over the world—70% in Europe—researchers found that, on average, organic crops/crop-based foods had higher levels of antioxidants, lower concentrations of cadmium, and a lower incidence of pesticide residues.

The review found that organically grown crops had an average of 17% more antioxidants (including polyphenolics) than those produced conventionally. In their review, the researchers cited several dietary studies that suggested consuming more foods rich in antioxidants—especially fruits, vegetables and whole grains—may protect against a variety of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and neurodegenerative diseases. Antioxidants are believed to protect the body against cell damage caused by free radicals—substances in the body and in the environment (especially in smoke or pollution). When produced in the body in excessive amounts, free radicals can increase inflammation in the body and contribute to the development of disease.

Cadmium is a highly toxic metal that accumulates in the body (especially in the liver and kidneys). According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cadmium is found in foods naturally and due to air pollution. Although the exact health benefits of lowering dietary intake of cadmium are unknown, the British Journal of Nutrition review found that, on average, organic crops had 48% less cadmium than non-organic crops. The researchers urge keeping cadmium levels in the diet as low as possible. They also note that the European Commission has set maximum residue levels in foods for cadmium as well as lead and mercury, also toxic metals.

Although the FDA acknowledges there are no regulatory limits for toxic elements like cadmium or lead in food, foods that are found to have higher than normal levels of such metals are brought to the attention of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), who then assesses the potential hazards associated with cadmium intake at such levels.

The British Journal of Nutrition review also revealed that the frequency of occurrence of detectable pesticide residues was four times higher in conventional crops than in organic crops. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), pesticides are chemicals intended to kill unwanted insects, plants, molds, and rodents. The AAP believes that even low-level exposure to pesticides among children is concerning, especially because “they encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity.” In fact, in its policy statement on pesticide exposure in children, the AAP cites evidence associating early life exposure to pesticides with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.

Even though the British Journal of Nutrition review has gotten a lot of positive press, not everyone agrees (as evidenced in this article by AG professional) that its conclusions are definitive or that such results should ultimately dictate people’s perceptions or purchases when it comes to organic versus conventional food. Eating and buying food is very personal, and it’s up to parents to decide what’s best for their families based on personal preferences, nutrient needs, budgetary and time considerations and other factors.

In the meantime, kids should at very least be encouraged to meet current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, especially when it comes to foods that many fall short on including nutrient-rich vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Until we know more, focusing more on helping kids get closer to meeting current recommended intakes for produce and whole grains rather than pitting organic and conventional foods against one another is a great first step towards helping them meet their nutrient needs that support optimal growth and development. MyPlate recommends 1 to 2 cups fruit, 1 to 3 cups vegetables and 1.5 to 4-ounce equivalents whole grains daily, depending on your child’s age and gender.

Still, if you can afford and choose to provide your family with mostly organic foods, you’ll likely reap at least some benefits (eg lowering pesticide intake) by doing so.

To learn more about organic food, check out my Scoop on Food post, Should You Buy Organic Food?

Do you buy organic foods?

Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid

Image of a variety of fresh healthy foods via shutterstock.

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Is This Chemical The New BPA?

Friday, July 25th, 2014

This is a guest post by Brooke Bunce.

Phthalates (pronounced thal-eights) aren’t a new type of antioxidant-packed ancient grain. They’re actually hazardous chemical compounds that exist in food, packaging, cosmetics, personal care products, containers, and more, which is why we should be watching out for them around every corner. Primarily, they’re used to soften plastics and create lubricants in hygienic products, and there are a slew of different types of phthalates. Since they’re so ubiquitous (especially in our food)—and continuously released into surrounding materials—phthalates are even harder to avoid than most chemicals.

So why the worry? Aside from ingesting and inhaling an unknown toxin, many studies have shown phthalates to be endocrine disruptors,  which means that they can seriously mess with normal hormone production. Registered dietician Natalia Stasenko, of Tribeca Nutrition in New York City, notes that phthalates can target the reproductive systems of boys, reduce levels of testosterone, and even cause allergies and asthma. They’ve also been linked to diabetes, excessive weight gain, and premature births.

When phthalates were found to be in many toys and teethers, parents and doctors pushed back through protest, and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 removed multiple toxins from toy production. Unfortunately, a new study from the journal Environmental Health found that infants still ingest twice the recommended amount of chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. Considering all the other precautions we take to keep our kids safe, this figure is quite unsettling.

High fat foods such as cream, full fat cheese, cooking oils, meats and poultry are partly to blame for increased phthalate ingestion, Stasenko says. But why are high fat foods more prone to phthalate contamination? No one’s quite sure, but it’s speculated that fat molecules are much easier for phthalates to latch onto. The Washington Post points out that plastic packaging and plastic tubing used to milk cows may be the culprit for high concentrations in dairy and meat products.

Despite these disheartening figures, there are still steps that parents can take to reduce the intake of phthalates. Even small changes can make a huge impact when it comes to kids’ health. Stasenko and other experts suggest the following:

  •  Stay away from toys made before February 2009, or any toy marked with a “3″ inside the recycling symbol. Look for alternatives to plastic toys, such as wool, wood, or cotton.
  • When reheating food, cover it in a paper towel instead of plastic wrap (especially wrap that’s marked with “N3″).
  • Reheat leftovers in glass, ceramic, or stainless steel instead of plastic containers. Likewise, avoid putting  hot foods in plastic containers.
  • Reduce plastic as much as possible in your kitchen—within reason. Try to use silicone or stainless steel instead for kid-friendly items like sippy cups or snack containers.
  • Reduce the use of personal care products that have “fragrance” in the ingredients, as this can be a catchall for numerous chemicals, including phthalates.
  • Try to get electronic receipts whenever possible, since they’re made with paper that contains phthalates. Or, wash your hands after handling receipts.
  • Switch to low fat dairy products. Note: low fat dairy is not appropriate for children under 2 year of age due to their unique calorie and nutritional needs.


Organic produce, dairy, and meat are also a safer bet when it comes to avoiding chemicals, since phthalates can be found in many pesticides. If you’re ever unsure, there are a bounty of resources that can help decode what’s in the products and food you buy, such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group.

Babyproofing Your Home: Kitchen
Babyproofing Your Home: Kitchen
Babyproofing Your Home: Kitchen

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Should Kids Consume Caffeine?

Monday, July 21st, 2014

If you’re like most parents, you wouldn’t dream of getting through the day without some kind of caffeine pick-me-up first thing in the morning or midday. Not only can a cup or two of iced or hot coffee or tea, soda or other caffeinated beverage stimulate your brain and nervous system—and keep you awake for that early morning meeting, feeding or workout—it may also make you feel just a little bit happier! And what sleep-deprived parent of an infant or young child wouldn’t appreciate the perks caffeine can provide?

Unfortunately, it’s likely our caffeine-centric ways coupled with the widespread availability and marketing of caffeine-containing beverages and other products may prompt our children to seek out caffeine and possibly harm their health.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to determine a safe level of caffeine for children, the agency—concerned about the proliferation of caffeine-infused products including chewing gum, jelly beans, bottled water and waffles—announced last year its plan to investigate the safety of caffeine in food products and the effects of caffeine on children and adolescents. And just last week, the FDA issued a warning to consumers to avoid powdered pure caffeine, sold on the internet. The substance is believed to have caused a caffeine overdose and subsequent untimely death of an 18-year-old high school wrestler in Ohio.

According to a recent ABC News report, the boy had 70 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter of blood in his system, an amount that far exceeds the 3 to 5 micrograms you’d find in a typical coffee drinker.

Even a tiny amount of pure caffeine powder, which isn’t regulated by the FDA, can be harmful. For example, a mere teaspoon provides just about the same amount of caffeine as 25 cups of coffee.

As a moderate caffeine consumer, registered dietitian and mother of two (my older son just turned 16, and my younger son is 12), the use of caffeine by children concerns me. Because children typically weigh less than adults, they’re much more vulnerable to caffeine’s effects. And although few studies have examined the effects of caffeine in children, a recent review published in the Journal of Hypertension found that the caffeine concentration in so-called energy drinks is high and their over consumption could contribute to insomnia, agitation, tremors and cardiovascular complications like sudden death.

Although I don’t mind if my sons have an occasional caffeinated soda at a party, I’ve tried to encourage them to play it safe by simply avoiding caffeine-containing beverages—at least until they’re older and until caffeine amounts are required to be posted on labels. But until the FDA provides guidance on how much caffeine is safe for children to consume, it’s wise for parents to heed the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics or Center for Science in the Public Interest and to encourage kids to avoid caffeinated soda, energy drinks, and for most kids (except extremely athletic ones), sports drinks—at least most of the time.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), caffeine may dial down a child’s appetite—a problem if a child is underweight or already has limited food or nutrient intake. The NIH also discourages caffeinated beverage intake in children who are hyperactive since it can potentially exacerbate their behavior.

Caffeine can also exacerbate anxiety and depression or interfere with sleep. In large amounts, it can reduce calcium absorption and thin bones. None of these effects are desirable, especially in growing children.

At the very least, it’s prudent to follow Health Canada’s daily guidelines for caffeine use in children aged 4 and above:

  • Age 4 to 6: 45 milligrams (~one 12-ounce can of cola)
  • Age 7 to 9: 62.5 mg (~one and a half cans cola)
  • Age 10 to 12: 85 mg (~two cans cola)
  • Age 13 and older: no more than 2.5 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight

To see how much caffeine various beverages and foods contain, check out MedlinePlus or CSPI’s Caffeine Content of Food & Drugs.

It’s also critical to monitor children’s online purchases and to protect them from potentially harmful products like powdered pure caffeine and caffeine-loaded energy drinks that are easily available to virtually anyone online.

How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids

Image of family having breakfast in bed via shutterstock.

Do you let your kids consume caffeine? 

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