Fooled by Food

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

There is so much confusion about what is good to eat and what isn’t that it’s really hard to keep up. Many people believe their diets are pristine, while consuming foods that are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” — foods that actually undermine their quest to achieve a healthy weight. From several sources, Childhood Obesity News has gathered tips that might inspire people to take a second look at their beliefs about various foods.

In a Readers Digest list of “27 Foods You Should Never Buy Again,” several examples apply to the realm of weight loss. Low-fat peanut butter, for instance. When the fat comes out, guess what goes in to make it taste OK? A bunch of sugar. There are many reasons to avoid processed, smoked, or cured meats, and chances are anyone visiting this blog has already said goodbye to them. But just in case, we are reminded that pork sausage can legally be composed of up to 50% fat.

Let’s mention “multi-grain” bread, which is called “junk food masquerading in a healthy disguise.” The author recommends just skipping the bread and eating brown rice, steel-cut oats, quinoa and barley. Gluten-free baked goods, if not exactly a scam, are the next-best thing to deception, according to this author:

If you aren’t diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, keep in mind that gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean healthy — and gluten-free baked goods like bread, cookies, and crackers often are packed with more refined flours, artificial ingredients, and sugar than traditional baked goods.

If the absence of gluten really is important, many weight-conscious cooks recommend bread made from almond flour, which avoids the problems of grain and carbohydrates while providing protein. Which brings us to what Dr. Julie TwoMoon believes is a common misunderstanding of nutritional truth, because many people believe that “You can eat as much protein as you want, just watch the carbohydrates.” TwoMoon warns that protein, while excellent and necessary, can be problematic because the human ability to process it stops after about 4 ounces of it per meal, and after that it’s converted into glucose, and from there into fat.

The Crunchies

Granola, which for some reason still retains a hold on people’s imaginations as some kind of ultimate health food, is nothing of the sort. Of course there are many ways to make granola — it’s kind of like soup in that respect. But a ball-park average calorie count for about ½ cup of it seems to be around 500 calories, and that’s before milk is added. About 150 or more of those calories could easily be from sugar, so read the label and beware of syrups, whether high fructose corn syrup, glucose syrup, or the innocent-sounding maple syrup.

Granola bars, aka energy bars, are just the same stuff glued together tighter. They have fat! They have sugar! They have calories! Dr. Christopher Mohr calls the energy bar a “carb-dense sugar bomb that offers very little in terms of sustainable energy or satiating protein.” Dr. Mohr also advises fish enthusiasts to stay away from Americanized interpretations of sushi, which contain a lot of hidden calories in the sauces. He says:

Instead stick with ‘sashimi,’ which is fish without rice and no sauces. Or if you want the rice, nigiri is the same piece of fish with just a bit of rice underneath. While you’re at it, stick to the better fish varieties like salmon, mackerel, and tuna — all rich in heart healthy omega-3 fats and protein.

Individual servings

It might seem like a good idea to buy little 100-calorie packages of snacks, but you’re probably kidding yourself, because you’ll just keep opening and eating one after another, meanwhile supporting the packaging industry in high style.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “27 Foods You Should Never Buy Again,” RD.com, undated
Source: “Dr. Julie’s Top 7 Misconceptions Of The Health Food Store World,” SevenDirectionsMedicine.com, 03/30/14
Source: “5 Foods You Think Are Healthy—But Aren’t,” MensHealth.com, 02/27/14
Image by janwillemsen

Childhood Obesity and Design

missing something

“Design” is a term that has always drawn an emotional response, whether positive or negative, and it makes a difference at every level of life’s activities, starting first thing in the morning.

What size should a breakfast cereal bowl be? Big enough to hold the serving of cereal and the milk, with a little extra space for maneuvering, to get the spoon full without slopping outside the bowl. The recommended serving of most cereals is about ¾ cup, with about ½ cup of milk. The cooking measurement of one cup is about 8 ounces, but “cereal bowls” are sold in 16-ounce size, and even with a 22-ounce capacity.

One trick of the design trade that can help with eating habits is to use a small bowl or plate, which fools the eyes and mind into thinking that the stomach is receiving more. The idea of designing for health applies not only to small kitchen items like bowls and plates, but to buildings and outdoor spaces, which “green” health partnerships work toward changing to improve health outcomes.

The venerable Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the source of an article called “Fighting Childhood Obesity by Design Thinking.” For a very long time and in most contexts, design merely meant aesthetic appeal, or the way an object looked. The newer concept of design thinking is wrapped up in every stage of development of a product, process, service, or even strategy. It’s what architect Louis Sullivan was talking about with his famous dictum, “Form follows function.”

Increasingly, designers are regarded as partners in meeting the needs of the users of products and services, and their input is solicited from the very earliest stages. This is the kind of thinking the Foundation wishes to apply to the problem of childhood obesity. Vanessa Farrell, a program associate who works with the RWJF childhood obesity team, explains:

Designers can help create compelling solutions and concepts that can make healthy choices appealing and accessible, challenge conventional thinking, and shine light on practices and policies that need improvement. They can play an essential role by putting their design-thinking to work influencing human behavior around choices related to diet and physical activity.

The basic idea here is that individual behavior change alone is not enough to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic, and that many answers must be found or created in the built environment. How can designers more effectively collaborate with researchers and public health practitioners on influencing choices related to physical activity and diet? That was one of the questions addressed by some of the 2,000 design professionals who convened last fall for a design conference called “Head, Heart, Hand.”

One of the panelists was Dr. Matthew Trowbridge of the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR), an organization that has produced a comprehensive report on building sustainable schools for healthy kids. Dr Trowbridge, a pediatrician who teaches at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, talked about a school in Virginia that was redesigned around a food lab and teaching kitchen, with a compost facility and outdoor gardens cared for by students.

Available from NCCOR’s website is a comprehensive report titled “Public health and the green building industry: Partnership opportunities for childhood obesity prevention,” which includes seven recommendations on how to apply green health research and practice to the area of childhood obesity prevention.

Another participant talked about how design thinking plays a vital role in data visualization, which in turn paints the picture of a community’s assets and needs. For schools, cafeteria design was discussed, because it has been shown that placement of various foods can influence which ones are chosen. These are only a few examples of how design of the built environment can work hand-in-hand with health professionals dedicated to eradicating childhood obesity.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Culture of Health,” RWJF.org, 10/09/13
Source: “Green Health,” NCCOR.org, 2013
Image by Jennifer Donley

New Thoughts on Addiction and the Brain

All things which hold us together

Considering how many people fall prey to addiction, and considering how many potentially addictive things are in the world — including food we eat every day — it might seem as if science should know a little more about it by now. But many questions are open, and Bethany Brookshire lists some of them. A human is wired to have a reward system, which is meant to encourage us to continue doing and pursuing things that are good for us. But sometimes the reward system gets its wires crossed and causes us to want things that are bad for us. Is that the root of all addiction?

Or is addiction basically a learning disorder? Or an inappropriate overreaction to normal stress that most people develop healthier ways of dealing with? Or does it stem from an unlucky combination of inborn genetic conditions that interact badly with input from the environment? Brookshire suggests that while none of those ideas are wrong, they are all incomplete:

Addiction is a disorder of reward, a disorder of learning. It has genetic, epigenetic and environmental influences. It is all of that and more. Addiction is a display of the brain’s astounding ability to change — a feature called plasticity — and it showcases what we know and don’t yet know about how brains adapt to all that we throw at them.

While a case can be made that genetic differences cause some individuals to have an increased vulnerability and propensity toward addiction, that is only a small part of the total picture. And while dopamine does undeniably play a role, it turns out not to act in the ways that were originally assumed to be the totality of the picture. Different areas of the brain don’t always connect in the same ways. Neither the chemicals nor the receptors consistently act in the ways that researchers had come to expect. Many times, causality is an open question.

The trouble with studying the brain of an addict is the difficulty of distinguishing what conditions existed there before the addiction. What came first? Some sort of deficit that opened the door for addiction? Or a continuing assault upon the system by some substance, which created a deficit?

Science thought for a while that the answer could be found in dopamine, the brain chemical associated with pleasure. Addictive drugs bring out more of it. But that simple theory has been thrown into doubt.

Paul Kenny, a neurobiologist interviewed by the writer, notes a subtle but significant difference — the notion that dopamine measures not pleasure, but value. For instance, the presence of a drug has the effect of re-prioritizing the reward system. The substance is assigned the highest value, while other parts of life such as family, money, work, and law-abidingness take a back seat. Brookshire explains:

As someone takes a drug over and over, dopamine and other systems in the brain respond with plasticity — that is, those systems adapt to the presence of the drug. Receptors that control the response to chemicals like dopamine change concentration. Connections between brain cells and between different areas of the brain strengthen and weaken.

As Dr. Kenny admitted, “Now, scientists are willing to admit we have no idea where reward comes from or how we experience pleasure.” So, back to square one.

To many researchers, it appears evident that all behavioral disorders are the same because they all involve learning and plasticity. One example given is the development of habits, which generally benefit us. It’s a very good thing that a person can, for instance, remember how to use a toilet even when half-asleep, in pain, or just preoccupied with other thoughts. If we had to stop and relearn how to do it every time, life would be complicated indeed. Most of our habits are good. But when an addictive substance is present, the brain learns differently and in maladaptive ways. We not only catch bad habits, but the process of habit formation gets speeded up.

Brookshire’s article of course goes into much greater detail about all these ideas and the researchers who discuss them. She wraps it up with a comprehensive back-to square-one type of statement:

The only overall explanation for addiction is that the brain is adapting to its environment. This plasticity takes place on many levels and impacts many behaviors, whether it is learning, reward or emotional processing. If the question is how we should think of addiction, the answer is from every angle possible.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Addiction showcases the brain’s flexibility,” ScienceNews.org, 08/05/14
Image by torbakhopper

Childhood Obesity’s Urgent Message

Chubby Baby

Last time, Childhood Obesity News looked at part of the conversation between author Michael Prager and Dr. Christopher Ochner, a researcher in obesity and nutrition. They touched upon many points, but the big takeaway from Dr. Ochner’s studies has to do with prevention. Everything he says emphasizes the importance of stopping childhood obesity before it begins.

The problem is that a commercial or faddish popular weight-loss diet may be successful in the short term. But people who engage in them almost always gain the weight back. Success in shedding pounds does not always result in sustainability. Dr. Ochner defines sustainability as “the ability for most individuals to maintain a particular behavior.” Apparently, most individuals do not possess this ability to any great extent.

Dr. Ochner teaches in three different subject areas — pediatrics, psychiatry, and adolescent medicine. He and his colleagues are experts, and their perspective is results-oriented, related to realistic expectations of what health professionals “can get most people to do most of the time for the long run.” He writes:

Based on the data we have, only 2 percent to 5 percent of the individuals with obesity who are successful in losing a meaningful amount of weight (5 or more percent of initial body weight) are successful in keeping it off long-term using ANY kind of weight loss diet…. I despise that fact but I can’t deny that it is fact.

What he’s saying is maybe, at best, one weight-loser in 20 will be able to sustain the loss. But then elsewhere he gives even worse odds:

[T]he average adult individual who has been obese for a period of time has less than a 1 percent chance of maintaining a healthy body weight long-term…. Once an adult has developed and maintained obesity for an extended period of time (varies but probably about 12 months), the body adopts that new higher body weight and will from then on defend that body weight as if it needs every one of those pounds to survive.

A less than 1 percent chance of sustaining weight loss — what a disheartening statistic! The body always strives to return to its highest weight — what a grim prognostication! It is a biological drive, which originates in the part of the biology called the brain. Dr. Ochner believes that behavioral techniques, willpower, and support groups are no match for the natural tendency to backslide.

What all this points to is the urgent importance of not becoming overweight in the first place, because once obesity sinks its teeth into a person it can be very difficult to shake. There are stages on the road to obesity where it’s still possible to turn around or take another path. But it appears that a year could be the crucial period. After a year of obesity, a person can still return to normal weight, but with an exponential increase in difficulty.

A research team from Emory University established that the kindergarten year is important for children, because the typical overweight 5-year-old is four times as likely to become an obese eighth-grader, compared to the fate of a normal-weight 5-year-old. The lead author, Dr.Venkat Narayan, is not certain to what extent obesity has to do with the things that happen before a child is born. But he is certain of this much:

The biggest risk of developing new obesity from ages 5 to 14 is really driven by kids entering kindergarten overweight…. Those children who were born large or are overweight at age 5, something is happening very early in life which sets the pathway to obesity.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “ ‘Food could be considered an addictive substance.’ ” MichaelPrager.com, 06/13/14
Source: “Doctor replies: We have to worry about the other 95 percent,” MichaelPrager.com, 06/20/14
Source: “The doctor replies again: Once obese, it’s tough to escape,” MichaelPrager.com, 08/01/14
Source: “Kindergartner’s weight strong predictor of later childhood obesity,” FoxNews.com, 01/30/14
Image by Eduardo Merille

Differences in Approach to Obesity

October 13, 2013 at 0536PM

Childhood Obesity News discussed the conversation between Michael Prager, whose field is personal sustainability, and research scientist Dr. Christopher Ochner. There are more issues that deserve attention. Dr. Ochner holds the very pragmatic view that human nature is constant. In terms of the obesity epidemic, this implies that people will continue to eat what they love. They will continue to gain weight, and regard obesity as an unfortunate but acceptable side effect of what he calls “the American diet.” He writes:

The trick is not cutting out the foods we love to eat, but finding a way to make the foods we love to eat better for us.

That is an audaciously optimistic ambition. But even if science someday makes potato chips as healthy as Brussels sprouts, in the United States alone we’ve got something like 12 million obese kids who are in trouble right now.

Michael Prager is optimistic in a different way, trusting people to discover and serve their own “raw self-interest.” He mentions food allergies and sensitivities, and anyone can think of examples of how people change to avoid suffering. A person with celiac disease comes to terms with dietetic limitation. A person with diabetes adapts to the food rules. Even vegans who refuse meat for reasons of conscience are acting in their own self-interest, because following one’s conscience is gratifying. In its own way, this philosophy is also practical. Prager says:

I think that ice cream and pizza and onion rings taste great, and do occasionally feel a twinge about not eating them. But briefly put, I have experienced my life with those dishes in it, and experienced life without them, and on balance, without is better.

My experience from having taken those measures…. has been a flowering of my life in ways I couldn’t conceive until I acknowledged my struggles sufficiently to go deep enough to find what worked…. But everyone seeking a solution needs to be willing to keep trying solutions until they get the results they want.

Prager did not want to be obese, so he made choices, like eliminating flour and sugar from his diet. The main thing is, he has maintained a significant weight loss for a meaningfully long time. Also, he does not believe himself to be some kind of exceptional human being. The logical conclusion that follows, and the assumption he makes, is that anyone can do the same — make the tough choices, and find life’s fulfillment in things other than food.

While Dr. Ochner seems pretty well convinced that people can’t or won’t change, Michael Prager believes we are able to change, and specifically that we are capable of getting over the childish idea that actions don’t have consequences. He writes:

A foundational part of my release from extreme obesity has been accepting otherwise, that as just another citizen of the planet, I will experience the obvious outcomes of my choices. If my choices aren’t taking me where I want to go, the answer is to make different choices. Given reasonable reasons to do so, practically anyone is capable of doing that.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The greatest flaw in nutritional dogma?” MichaelPrager.com, 06/19/14
Source: “I didn’t diet, and I don’t feel deprived,” MichaelPrager.com, 06/20/14
Image by Arya Ziai

Dr. Ochner Weighs In on Michael Prager’s Blog

Rainbow sherbet ice cream

Michael Prager, author of Fat Boy Thin Man, carried on a conversation throughout several blog posts with Dr. Christopher Ochner, a research scientist concerned with obesity and nutrition. One of Dr. Ochner’s accomplishments was to become, in 2009, the youngest member of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons to be in charge of an independent research lab. Currently, Dr. Ochner can be found at the Icahn School of Medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, where he is an assistant professor in the fields of pediatrics, adolescent medicine, and psychiatry.

Dr. Ochner sees two major factors against us in the individual and collective struggle against obesity. Temptation is everywhere, and the food environment is disproportionately full of trans fats and unnecessary sugar. The other problem is that humans developed along the lines of a creature that stores as much energy as possible. Life is uncertain, and for hunter-gatherers, the food supply could be intermittent, so we store up fat to carry us through the lean times.

A seasonal fluctuation from fat to thin and back again is not the best way to go through life, but it did keep humans from starving. However, that was then and this is now — a now that is frighteningly shot through with paradox. How, as a species, did we become so big and so unhealthy at the same time?

Dr. Ochner characterizes his theory as reductionist, saying,

[O]besity is maintained by biological factors…. I believe everything comes down to chemistry in the brain…. The obesity epidemic is not a result of massive binge eating but progressive, passive overconsumption.

In another post, he emphasizes the importance of knowing the difference between what causes obesity and what maintains it:

We are all biologically predisposed to becoming obese in an obesogenic environment, with only about one-third of us able to resist. That said, I believe that the vast majority of individuals have the ability to not become obese, with lifestyle choices accounting for a hefty percentage of the variance in body weight.

But on the other hand, he also insists that lifestyle change alone is not sufficient, because of all the other forces working against us. And the “lifestyle choices” paradigm leads to fat blaming and shaming. Dr. Ochner says:

The expectation that individuals should be able to simply change their eating and activity habits to achieve and sustain a healthy body weight perpetuates the stigma that individuals with obesity are lazy and lack willpower…. In fact, what we (the “experts”) have been offering them for the past 20 years (i.e., “eat less and move more”) is just plain insufficient to overcome the potent biological drives to restore an individual’s highest body weight. The assumption that lifestyle change alone should be sufficient is at best incorrect and may in fact have adverse consequences.

Dr. Ochner expressed the idea that people are locked into following the “American diet,” which basically means consuming as much as they like of anything they want. In his view, it is pointless to tell people to cut out their most-loved yet most problematic foods, because they are not going to do it anyway. To him it appears that the best answer is to discover how to make these beloved foods better for us.

The most overweight Dr. Ochner has personally ever become was about 15 pounds over his present weight of 150. Having identified ice cream and M&Ms as his downfall, he refuses to let them in the house, because he would consume every bit immediately. But he doesn’t ban them entirely, leaving open the possibility that they can be enjoyed elsewhere. In this way he differs from both Dr. Pretlow and Michael Prager over the necessity of giving up the most irresistible problem foods.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Food could be considered an addictive substance,” MichaelPrager.com, 06/13/14
Source: “The doctor replies again: Once obese, it’s tough to escape,” MichaelPrager.com, 08/01/14
Image by Ruth Hartnup

Childhood Obesity and the Coca-Cola Culture

Nothing Like Having a Coke

There seems to be no end to the shenanigans of Coca-Cola. Last time, Childhood Obesity News looked at an article written by Rick Docksai for Inside Philanthropy, but did not bring up every interesting facet of it. The title has a bit of an edge — “Guess Which Company Is Both Making Us Fat and Funding Anti-Obesity Efforts?” — but the piece is decidedly corporate-positive. Docksai says of Coca-Cola:

[O]n the obesity issue, it seems to take a localized, neighborhood-scale approach with its funding. It reaches out to the individual communities and finds partners within them who can work with it to achieve its anti-obesity goals.

For instance, the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta received $1 million for nutrition education and leadership development, and Atlanta’s YMCA received $75,000 for fitness programs. In fact, since Georgia is the most obese state, its various community exercise and nutrition programs collected a total of $3.8 million.

All these activities carry an implicit message. As long as you eat some vegetables and work out every once in a while, then it’s OK to consume gallons of soft drinks every week. If you are overweight, it’s not because of the sugary drinks, but because you didn’t do enough sit-ups or eat the right kind of cucumbers. Obesity researcher Zoë Harcombe puts it this way:

Coca-Cola’s association with sport and slim, athletic looking people, reinforces their desired message — drink Coca-cola, exercise and you won’t get fat.

That was written in conjunction with Harcombe’s expressions of scorn for Coke’s close association with the most recent Olympics. These days, the corporation is very proud of itself for putting more than 180 low-calorie and no-calorie beverages on the market. Harcombe calls Coca-Cola’s public relations efforts manipulative and disgraceful, and detects conflicts of interest at every turn.

She mentions the sports nutritionist “recommended” by the corporation. Dr. Russell Pate holds the title of director of the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group, and believes strongly that “we will have to increase the physical activity level of our population if we want to overcome the obesity epidemic.” But he never proposes cutting out the sugar-sweetened beverages that infest the typical American’s diet. Harcombe says:

Surely Dr. Pate is bright enough to have worked out that it is better not to consume empty calories than it is to consume them and then try to work them off…. Dr. Pate should have declared that the University of South Carolina Department of Exercise Science, where he works, acknowledged in their spring 2011 newsletter…. ‘Recent new funding includes a large grant from Coca-Cola.’

Well, at least we know that Georgia was not the only state to benefit from the Coca-Cola Foundation’s munificence. Nor was Dr. Pate the only professional to reap rewards. Harcombe also mentions another of Coke’s tame medics, Dr. Steven Blair:

Blair’s loyalty to Coca-Cola has not gone unrewarded — he was a torch bearer at the London Olympics ‘recognized by Coca-Cola North America, one of the Olympic sponsors, for his “leadership in helping others live positively.” ‘

Coke has been a sponsor and supporter of the Association for the Study of Obesity in the United Kingdom, and of the British Nutrition Foundation. And then there’s the impressively named International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) which claims in its literature to be a “neutral forum.” It is funded not only by governments and foundations, but by the beverage industry. ILSI boasts a 31-member board of trustees, of whom two represent Coca-Cola.

There is also, of course, the carbohydrate working group of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, whose chair is Professor Ian MacDonald, who enjoys an intimate relationship with Coca-Cola Europe. Harcombe’s message is passionate:

Coca-Cola is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is not Coca-Cola’s job to resolve the obesity epidemic. It is Coca-Cola’s job to maximise profit for shareholders. In the fight against the obesity epidemic, Coca-Cola is the enemy….

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Guess Which Company Is Both Making Us Fat and Funding Anti-Obesity Efforts?” InsidePhilanthropy.com, 03/13/14
Source: “Coca-Cola, Obesity and Conflict,” ZoeHarcombe.com, 01/22/13
Image by Kool Cats Photography

Coke and Its Contradictions

Have a Coke

Shouldn’t we be about finished with bashing Coke? You’d think so, but Coca-Cola is such an inviting object on which to focus. It’s the archetypal childhood obesity villain. Central Casting could not have done a better job filling the role of “corporation with mixed motives. To indicate the scope of the problem, a Business Week article quoted beverage industry consultant Mike Weinstein as saying, “Coca-Cola is the soda industry. Whatever Coke does, it’s seen as what the soda industry does. What happens to Coke eventually happens to everyone.”

Early last year, reacting to Coca-Cola’s attempt to portray itself as part of the childhood obesity solution, Dr. Andreas Eenfeld came out with guns blazing:

This is ugly…. It’s like Marlboro trying to look like the solution to lung cancer…. Coca Cola is sponsoring a Brazilian conference on obesity and metabolic syndrome…. I do blame the conference organizers…. They are either too greedy or simply uninformed. Either way, it looks bad. It makes the entire conference smell.

Boyd Swinburn, who teaches population nutrition and global health at the University of Auckland, also serves as co-chairman of the International Obesity Taskforce. In reaction to Coca-Cola’s efforts to look like part of the solution to the obesity epidemic, he wrote:

We should be under no illusions, whatsoever: Coke’s PR campaign will not contribute to reducing obesity. In fact, if it is really successful in achieving its goals of staving off the more important policies that the World Health Organisation [WHO] is calling for such as restricting junk food to children and applying taxes to sugar-sweetened beverages, Coke’s campaign will be a net negative influence.

Speaking of WHO, a branch of the venerable global public health agency absorbed a lot of criticism because the Mexico office of one of its regional divisions, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), accepted gift dollars from Coca-Cola and its corporate behemoth counterparts. This is strictly against WHO’s rules, of course. The news agency Reuters discovered and widely publicized the fact that Coke gave PAHO $50,000. Of course, this is peanuts compared to the amounts donated by Nestlé and Unilever, which each contributed $150,000. Journalist Steve Holt asked:

Can a global public health agency receive donations from industrial food companies and still be trusted to create impartial policies and strategies for addressing obesity?

On the other hand, Rick Docksai for Inside Philanthropy made the case that such agencies can still be trusted because corporations are benevolent and so forth. The Coca-Cola Foundation is the philanthropic section of Coke, the one that gives out a portion of the company’s profits to good causes. All the Foundation wants its money to do is convince people to adopt healthier diets and be more physically active.

In other words, their propaganda and programs are aimed at selling the party line, as always. The beverages and other products they manufacture are in no way connected with worldwide obesity. “Active” and “healthy” are two of their favorite words, because it is in their interest to convince people that obesity is their own fault for not eating enough veggies or exercising enough. Logically, if it’s our fault, then it can’t be their fault.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Coke Confronts Its Big Fat Problem,” BusinessWeek.com, 07/31/14
Source: “Coca Cola Sponsors Brazilian Obesity Conference,” DietDoctor.com, 05/31/13
Source: “Coke changing its stripes on health? Fat chance,” NZHerald.co.nz, 08/01/13
Source: “Conflict of Interest: Why Is a Major Health Organization Taking Money From Coca-Cola and Nestlé?” TakePart.com, 10/30/12
Source: “Guess Which Company Is Both Making Us Fat and Funding Anti-Obesity Efforts?” InsidePhilanthropy.com, 03/13/14
Image by Kool Cats Photography

Corporate Sponsorship of Obesity Research and Gatherings

Morocco-128

A few years ago, Coca-Cola made a six-figure payment to the American Academy of Family Physicians to underwrite “consumer education content related to beverages and sweeteners.” Some doctors protested and quit the organization.

Julie Deardorff defines other corporate activities that rub health advocates the wrong way:

PepsiCo has funded a nutritional science fellowship at the Yale School of Medicine; Coca-Cola has sponsored a number of public health programs at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health…. The Coca-Cola Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness sponsors continuing professional education for registered dietitians, nurses and other professionals.

A contributor to Active Low-Carber Forums says that suspicion of the food industry goes back at least as far as 1998. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organisation called a meeting of “key nutritional scientists.” Their task would be to examine the role of carbohydrates in the human diet. The consultants did not find any reason to suggest a limit for the consumption of sugar. The forum says:

[I]t later emerged that it had been partly funded by Ilsi, the industry research group, and the World Sugar Research Organisation (WSRO), a sugar industry body.

Jim Mann, one of the experts at the meeting, said: ‘When we arrived [we were] told very clearly that it would be inappropriate to say anything bad about sugar.’

Also according to this source, a widely published exercise expert, Dr. Steve Blair, is not shy about admitting that his research is funded by millions of Coca-Cola dollars. In his world, caloric intake is not the least bit connected with obesity, and neither is excess sugar.

Marion Nestle wrote about the 2012 Focus on Obesity conference. Held in the nation’s capital, it was an element of the Black, Fit & Healthy initiative. Nestle lists the sponsors: HBO (on account of an obesity documentary it was producing), the Office of Minority Health, and — surprise! — the American Beverage Association. She says:

As documented by the Rudd Center at Yale, ABA members devote special efforts to marketing their products to Black Americans. Advertising Age notes that the soft drink industry makes no apologies for targeting minorities and considers it ‘smart marketing.’

The Rudd Center also compiled a stunning array of statistics that definitely seem to indicate a trend toward demographic targeting. So how could beverage manufacturers sponsor an event that purports to solve health problems they were instrumental in causing? Could it just be a cynical public relations ploy? Nestle noted that the Washington Post coverage of the conference was surrounded by ads bought by the ABA. She also mentioned that several of the speakers had some kind of relationship with Coca-Cola, including former employment.

For some reason, the soft drink industry has become very generous toward organizations and elected officials who support anti-obesity programs. Since 1982, Coca-Cola has donated $2.1 million to the NAACP. Stretched out over more than 30 years, that isn’t a huge number as donations go, but still — who wants to think that an august civil rights organization might take bribes to soft-pedal any objections its members might have to the targeting of black citizens with advertising for particularly harmful products?

Michael Nutter, who was mayor of Philadelphia at the time, rejected the ABA’s $10 million offer to make Coke the city’s official soft drink — an offer that had already been accepted by Miami Beach and two other cities. Uneasy about the whole involvement of the beverage industry in anti-obesity activities, Nutter seems to view the relationship as similar to putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. He is quoted as saying,

‘It seems to me that accepting money from the beverage industry to fight obesity would be like taking money from the NRA to fight gun violence or from the tobacco industry for smoking cessations, I mean, it’s ludicrous.’

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Family Doctors Sign Educational Deal With Coca-Cola,” NPR.org, 10/15/09
Source: “Critics pounce on Coke, Pepsi health initiatives,” ChicagoTribune.com, 02/04/12
Source: “Active Low-Carber Forums,” LowCarber.org, 01/20/14
Source: “American Beverage Association sponsors conference on obesity in minorities?” FoodPolitics.com, 07/13/12
Source: “Big Soda Knocks Harvard Report Linking ‘Sugary Drinks’ to 180,000 Deaths a Year,” AlterNet.org, 03/20/13
Image by Dennis Jarvis

Australia Addresses Obesity with Health Star Rating System

HSR

What should be on the front of a food package? Ideally, some kind of easy-to-grasp breakdown of the item’s nutritional value. After a prolonged period of consideration, Australia and New Zealand have both decided to use the health star rating (HSR) system (pictured). Stars are already familiar to the public, being used on appliances to indicate their energy efficiency or water efficiency. Hotels and movies are also rated by the star system, and of course many online services use stars to allow consumers to rate their products. Stars are convenient, visually attractive, and easily understood.

In 2011, the Australian government issued a 186-page report titled Labelling Logic that included a two-page glossary just to list all the acronyms and abbreviations it contains. The panel that put it together made 61 recommendations including the MTL or Multiple Traffic Lights system, which ultimately was not implemented.

Apparently, it was only after years of negotiation that consumer activist groups and the food industry came to an agreement, a process contributed to and overseen by the secretary of the health department. Politically, it was a Solomonic compromise, with neither side getting exactly what it wanted.

What did happen

Kyle Turner and Steven Allender write that the health and consumer groups tried for years to have the traffic-light labeling system adopted. The food industry, for some reason, rejected the traffic-light paradigm, which anyway performed unimpressively in at least one Australian study. The bureaucracy also nixed the traffic lights, and there was even a scandal involving a government figure and a conflict-of-interest problem.

The food industry didn’t want the traffic lights, but it didn’t want the HSR, either. The manufacturers were fine with continuing the daily intake guide, a system in use since 2006. The authors explain the corporations’ preferred method like this:

Daily intake guide values are based on an average adult’s daily requirement of 8,700 kilojoules (kJ) and intended as a set of reference values for acceptable intakes of energy and a variety of nutrients. It currently features on about 7,200 products but there’s no evidence that it’s effective.

Nevertheless, the daily intake guide will remain, in conjunction with the health star rating. That’s right, packaging will feature both. And why not? In a world of unexpected calories and mystery ingredients, any information is welcome that helps consumers know what they are eating. The star system was actually approved a year ago, when a two-year timeline was set. In other words, the food industry should voluntarily comply within that time frame, or the requirement would become mandatory, which amounts to the same thing in the end. But when new government officials took office, the deadline was moved to five years in the future, by which time all food manufacturers are expected to have the system in place.

This came about because the incoming Assistant Minister for Health ordered a cost-benefit analysis. It was decided that rapid implementation of the plan over a mere two years would be too expensive for the industry, but more easily affordable over a longer time span. A government bureau, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, provides a health star rating calculator and style guide with which manufacturers must comply.

Dr. Pretlow has suggested a labeling system to indicate the addictiveness of various foods. The addictive potential would be assessed by asking teenagers which foods they encounter the most problems with resisting, and products would be rated with a numerical value of 1-5. That might not be a bad idea.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “After three-year saga, health star rating labels finally ready to go,” TheConversation.com, 06/27/14
Source: “The Health Star Rating System Style Guide and Calculator – the basics,” Lexlogy.com, 2014
Image by Australian government

Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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