Efforts to accomodate obese children raise concern

School furniture companies are starting to adjust their chair and desk sizes in order to accomodate larger children.  Some new desks even have adjustable heights, and the larger seats are strategically designed to look like the normal sized ones so larger children don’t appear different, according to an article on CNN Health.

Chairs from Academia Furniture Industries range from 12 to 19 inches in size. Photo courtesy of CNN.

Furniture imported from other countries now has to be specially-made for the United States.  The diameter of the metal, the supporting structure and the width, depth and height of chairs have to be modified for the American market. The “big and tall” sizes, which are more expensive, have been selling better than the average sizes.

There is also a limited number child safety seats available for obese children, raising safety concerns, and clothing companies such as The Gap, Forever 21, Old Navy and Target are now selling plus-sized clothing for kids and teenagers to provide more fashionable options for larger children.

The question is, should companies use this health crisis as a way to get money? Are retailers providing “husky” fit clothes doing more harm than good? The best solution is long-term prevention, according to Dr. Richard Deckelbaum, director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University.

And the biggest concern comes down to health.  Pediatricians say growth charts, used since 1977, no longer apply to today’s children. In general, kids are getting bigger on the scale, and are more prone to heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and bone and joint problems.


Consumers speed through aisles, labels go unnoticed

There is currently no law requiring food manufacturers to put nutrition labels on the front of product packages, and therefore the majority of manufacturers place the labels on the back or side of their packaged foods products. But grocery store shoppers are often in a hurry and rarely take the time to flip the package and read the nutrition information on the back, according to Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an opinion columnist for the New York Times. This is especially true for shoppers with kids in tow, he said.

Parents who grocery shop with their kids often speed through the grocery store without taking the time to read nutrition labels. This habit can lead to unhealthy choices and childhood obesity.

In Emanuel’s piece, “Healthy Labels, Not Stealthy Labels,”  he writes that we need simple, standardized icons that are located in a consistent place on all food packages.  There have been many front-of-packaging labeling attempts throughout the history of the food industry, and recently Walmart and other companies have begun releasing icons that convey a value judgement about the product’s nutrition. But consumers will get overwhelmed and confused if  companies all implement independent symbols and there is no standard, Emanuel said. And here’s a fun fact: 90 percent of Walmart’s products will never be eligible for the new “Great for You” seal of approval, according to Fooducate.

Facts up Front, a nutrient-based labeling system that puts an easy-to-use format on the front of food and beverage packages, is making strides to help customers construct a healthy diet for themselves. But it is a voluntary, not required, initiative.

There has been talk in the past couple of years about food manufacturers adding nutrition information to their front of their packages, but the talk has not inspired action. Emanuel argues that these labels would not only encourage consumers to make healthier choices, it will encourage food manufacturers to make healthier products. It is the production of healthier foods, he says, that will combat obesity and promote health.

Read what the Los Angeles Times has to say about this issue.

Disney’s attempt at childhood obesity awareness met with harsh criticism

While some advertisements approach combatting child obesity in a constructive manner, others take it a step too far and end up doing more harm than good. The new Epcot Disney exhibit aimed at tackling obesity was recently forced to shut down after receiving negative feedback and criticism for stigmatizing overweight kids.

Snacker, Lead Bottom and The Glutton are the stars of the Habit Hero exhibit. Photo courtesy of curvygirlguide.com

The exhibit, called Habit Heroes, led visitors through a series of interactive experiences that fight bad habits, including too much junk food and television. Disney partnered with Blue Cross and Blue Shield to create the exhibit with the thought that children would improve their health and therefore lower health-care costs. But many felt the ad reinforced negative obesity stereotyping, promoted bullying and demonized fat kids, according to CNN contributor Lisa Suennen.  The exhibit was set to open March 5, but the date has been postponed in order to re-design the exhibit.

Yoni Freedhoff, publisher of the well-known blog Weighty Matters, was especially infuriated by the exhibit. He argued that the exhibit implies that all obese kids are gluttonous, lazy and lie around and eat junk food all day. Overweight kids are tormented enough at school; why should it continue when they go on vacation?

Candy bars are getting smaller

In an effort to improve the nutritional value of its products and keep its commitment to health and nutrition, Mars. Inc will stop selling chocolate bars with more than 250 calories in them by the end of next year, according to an MSNBC report.  The company will also reduce the sodium content in all products by 25 percent by 2015.

The Snickers bar will lose 11 percent of its size in order to fit the new 250 calorie limit. Photo courtesy of todayifoundout.com

This means no more 540 calorie king-size Snickers bar, which will be off the shelves by 2014 as part of what Mars is calling a push for responsible snacking. It will be replaced with bags of two or four smaller bars because, as a Mars’ spokesperson told NPR’s food blog “Salt,” it will hopefully “enable sharing or snacking for later.” Even the 2-ounce Snickers, which currently have 280 calories, will lose about 11 percent of its size to fit the new requirement.

Candies that fit the 250 calorie limit, such as M&M’s and Twix bars, will not downsize.

Read more about Mars’ initiatives and new portion sizes on their website.

Distance hinders healthy eating

Many Americans don’t think twice about making a weekly trip to the grocery store because they live in proximity to their local grocer.  But for people who don’t have the convenience of living down the street, grocery shopping is not just an inconvenience, it’s a financial and nutritional burden.

According to Minnesota Public Radio, the problem is especially prevalent in Minnesota, where buying healthy food is complicated by the lengthy distance to the grocery store. These “urban food deserts,” or low-income areas where the majority fo residents have to travel more than a mile to get to a grocery store, are scattered all over Minnesota, limiting how often the residents can make a trip to the store.  If they do buy vegetables, they often go bad before they are eaten.  And when they run out of fun, many people make the shorter trip to the gas station, which lacks a produce section altogether, or to fast food restaurants which offer limited nutritional value.

Many residents of Linkin Park shop at the Little Store, where healthy options are extremely limited, because it is more convenient than going to a full-sized grocery store. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio.

Adam Pine, a geographer at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is researching the Linkin Park area specifically to see where residents get their food. The residents have little to no money and no cars, and walk to the Little Store, a convenience store, to get frozen pizza and milk. But according to Pine’s research, a basket of food from a local convenience store costs 50 percent more than a basket from a grocery store.

The problem comes down to grocery stores not opening in the area because they would have trouble making a profit and face higher security costs. Community groups are still working to provide more options for residents, and are organizing a neighborhood gardening program that will sell discounted produce in Linkin Park this summer.

Nonprofit organizations are also helping to solve the problem of urban food deserts around the country.  According to Nonprofit Quarterly, nonprofits such as the emergency food aid group Philabundance have partnered with supermarket chains to bring them to these low-income areas.

Check out Sarah Kliff’s blog post in the Washington Post for the results from a recent survey offered by Public Health Nutrition related to this issue of convenience.

Ten Internet sources

Childhood obesity was recently listed by The American Academy of Pediatrics as one of the top five national children’s health issues of 2012.  More than one third of children and teenagers are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is a frightening statistic that cannot be ignored. Not only does obesity give children higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, it has a significant effect on their self esteem and performance in school.  The topic has become politically charged because of the varying stances prominent political figures have taken on the issue, including Michelle Obama’s strong fight against childhood obesity as demonstrated by her “Let’s Move” campaign.

1. http://www.nytimes.com/pages/health/nutrition/index.html The New York Times is a great resource because of the way it categorizes all of its news articles. There is not only a “Health” section, but also a subcategory called “Fitness and Nutrition.” I expect to find a number of good articles related to childhood obesity on this web page.

2. http://www.rwjf.org/childhoodobesity/digestlist.jsp This web page serves as a “news digest” on childhood obesity and provides links to key articles from journals, publications and blogs. All of the posts are consistently updated, and I am already interested in looking into the articles posted to this website.

3. http://yourlife.usatoday.com/health/index Like The New York Times, USA Today has a specific section for all of their health related articles. I can further narrow my search by clicking on a top health topic or using the alphabetized organizer.

4. http://www.letsmove.gov/ Lets Move! is an initiative launched by Michelle Obama dedicated to fighting childhood obesity and fostering environments that promote healthy growth. I am excited to explore this web site to learn in detail what types of programs this initiative has created.

5. http://topics.cnn.com/topics/childhood_obesity CNN has an entire section of their website devoted to childhood obesity, which includes both videos and news articles.

6. http://abcnews.go.com/health I am excited to begin searching on abc news because of their comprehensive coverage of health related issues and their variety of subcategories that will help me narrow my search.

7. http://www.weightymatters.ca/ This blog is published by an obesity medicine doctor and a self-proclaimed “certifiably cynical realist.” I am confident this blog can re-direct me to a number of different sites I may not have otherwise visited, and will introduce me to new aspects and perspectives on the issue of childhood obesity that I am not yet aware of.

8. http://blog.fooducate.com// Just by browsing this blog, I am excited to get started exploring what it has to offer. The blog is all about preparing healthy food and is written by a father of three toddlers.

9. http://www.foodpolitics.com/ This blog will help me answer a lot of questions that I have regarding my topic.

10. http://www.npr.org/sections/food/?ft=1&f=1053 As a fan of NPR, I was excited to see that they had a whole “food” section on their website.

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