Junkfood Science: Such a deal ...or is it?

October 24, 2007

Such a deal ...or is it?

IBM has taken its employee wellness programs from the workplace into employees’ homes. The company announced today that it will pay employees to put their children into a 3-month online childhood obesity program. For every child that parents enroll in a “‘healthy’ eating and exercise training” program, they’ll get a $150 Children’s Health Rebate. But there’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye.

As CNN reports:

IBM's New Children's Health Rebate for Employees Helps Families Attain a Healthy Lifestyle

IBM today announced a new wellness incentive for U.S. employees that encourages healthy living for families and children. The Children's Health Rebate... is one of four $150 cash rebates available to IBM employees in the U.S... The program is available online to U.S. employees, and offers participants a wide range of educational resources, such as sample menus, exercise suggestions and nutritional value of popular foods... Employees also receive the book, “Family Power" by Karen Miller-Kovach, Chief Scientific Officer at Weight Watchers.

To qualify for the Children's Health Rebate, IBM employees use an interactive online tool to manage their family's eating and exercise habits with self-paced tracking plans that can be securely accessed only by the employee's family.... It suggests activities for families such as preparing family dinners together, and spending time on family walks and active games. Families take an inventory of their eating and activity habits, considering such points as how often they eat dinner together, how many servings of fruits and vegetables they eat each day and how often they exercise. Participants then set goals to build on those healthy habits, and keep a daily diary over any 12-week period using the site's “healthy lifestyle planner." The planner can be printed out and children can mark their success with gold stickers provided by IBM. At the end of the 12 weeks, families complete a brief online inventory to evaluate their progress....

IBM has teamed up with Weight Watchers, a fellow member of the National Business Group on Health. It’s easy to see how Weight Watchers will benefit by such compulsory participation of 128,000 IBM employees in a Weight Watchers’ branded program...one that will simultaneously bring up an entire generation of weight-absorbed future customers. But IBM has not disclosed what’s in the deal for them. Even if such a program worked, by the time any health benefits might materialize, the children will long since be off on their own and no longer on their parents’ insurance plan.

The money may be enough to coerce some workers let their employer decide what their family eats, where and when they eat, and how often they exercise and what type of exercise they do. But using children is especially insidious, because what isn’t being said is that this childhood obesity program is an experimental pilot project with absolutely no evidence that it will prevent child obesity, let alone improve their children’s health. In fact, all of the evidence to date has shown similar programs to be ineffective for improving children’s health — such as changing their blood pressures, glucose tolerance, fitness, ‘cholesterol’ levels or rates of childhood illnesses — or change long-term obesity rates. But they do leave young people vulnerable to body-image problems and life-long dysfunctional relationships with food and eating.

The book which the IBM childhood obesity prevention program is based upon is the Weight Watchers Family Power: 5 Simple Rules for a Healthy-Weight Home. The book’s Introduction was written by Meredith Vieira, who JFS readers will remember narrated the GlaxoSmithKline-funded PBS special, “FAT: What No One Is Telling You.” The content of that program was carefully written to convince the public that obesity was a crisis and the result of an obesogenic environment.

According to the Weight Watchers Family Power book, its goal “is to help our kids grow up to be lean and healthy adults.” By following easy rules — eat whole foods, limit screen time and engage in one hour of activity a day — it claims that all children will easily achieve a healthy weight. A ‘healthy weight’ is defined as thin and complying with the CDC’s new BMI growth charts. Pages are devoted to explaining BMI and a ‘healthy range’ for children.

These popular, but unsound myths, are followed by countless more. The book heavily quotes the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-commissioned and sponsored Institute of Medicine report, “Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity: How Do We Measure Up?” The opening makes the typical claims that 30% of children are ‘overweight’ or ‘at risk of overweight,’ that childhood obesity is a global epidemic, and that the main reason is kids’ unhealthy lifestyles, bad diet, processed foods, insufficient activity, and screen time. The book has chapters such as “Setting Food Policy” and sidebars addressing problems like “The Reluctant Teen.”

But parents will be most concerned to learn what Weight Watcher’s author Karen Miller-Kovach admits about this program:

While the Weight Watchers approach has been developed and extensively studied in adults, it has not been rigorously evaluated in children. The fact is, none of the popular weight-loss methods have, so any recommendations about their use in children and adolescents are based on the assumption that what’s right for adults is appropriate for kids. Recognizing that popular adult-based programs had not been adapted and carefully studied in children and adolescents, Weight Watchers took on the challenge, resulting in the Family Power pilot project and this book.

This experimental program claims that it is simple “to make small changes in eating and activity patterns” among the whole family to have a “big impact” on children’s body size, and that by simply teaching children “the principles of a healthy-weight lifestyle,” they’ll be left with “a legacy of a healthy weight.” More concerning, it claims that “it is best to start early, with children as young as three years of age.”

We’ve examined at length the lack of evidence for the safety and effectiveness of childhood obesity prevention programs — all of which have unsuccessfully applied these very techniques. How many parents will check out the program, research the facts and not want their children subjected to another unproven program? How many will help their children — whatever their natural body shapes and sizes— grow up free from childhoods dominated by body concerns and lifetimes of dieting? How many parents will recognize that they do not need or want their employer or Weight Watchers telling them how to feed and raise their children? And how many will find the $150 too irresistible?

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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