Junkfood Science: Is this a “healthy” lifestyle?

November 15, 2007

Is this a “healthy” lifestyle?

November is the National PTA’s (Parent Teacher Association) Healthy Lifestyles Month. Among its efforts to build healthy families and teach parents about nutrition and physical activity, the PTA is distributing PTA Healthy Lifestyles: A Parent's Guide. It’s described as a parents’ manual for “doing the right things to cultivate lifelong healthy habits” in their children. See if you agree.


It opens with the physical activity chapter, which says that “given the growing epidemic of obesity and the link between physical activity and academic performance, parents and schools must work together to make quality daily physical education a priority.”

Parents are advised to start a fitness program at home, set goals and track progress by logging everyone’s activity on a chart hung on the refrigerator. Exercise, it says, should have four phases that include warming up, stretching, then exercising for an appropriate duration and intensity, and finally cooling down. Parents are also advised to use pedometers “to determine which activities require the most steps,” to give physical activity–oriented gifts to their children, and give sports themes to parties they host.

Starting children off early to see physical activity as grueling exercise — requiring discipline, counting steps and heart rates, and logging times — and as a means to burn calories is controversial among child development and eating disorder experts, as we've reviewed here. The PTA provides no evidence that instilling such exercise regimens in kids creates a life-long love of activity. No evidence is provided of any long-term benefits or if they outweigh the potential harms. No data is provided as to if unstructured play might be more kids’ style. And, since we already know that no exercise program has been able to show effectiveness in the prevention or reduction of childhood obesity, the Guide understandably doesn’t attempt to support their implication that their recommendations will do anything about obesity.

Proper Nutrition

The PTA Guide's nutrition chapter gives recommendations for healthy food choices to prevent “costly and potentially disabling diseases, like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.” Portions vary for each age group. Each day, children ages 2-3 years, for example, are to eat 3 ounces of whole grains, 1 cup each of fruits and vegetables, 2 cups of low-fat milk, and 2 ounces of lean protein. Portions increase with age so that teen boys are supposed to get 7 ounces whole grains, 3 cups vegetables, 2 cups fruits, 3 cups low-fat milk and 6 ounces lean protein each day. Parents are told to “make sure all dairy foods are low-fat or fat-free.”

“Almost all snacks served to children should be fruits and vegetables,” the Guide says, and “water should be the main drink served to kids at snack times” because it doesn’t add calories or sugars. These PTA recommendations reference the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Did you notice the major foods and nutrients missing? There are absolutely no recommendations for dietary fats or allowances for sugars. Parents aren’t reminded that at least one-third of children’s daily calories need to come from fats which are essential for good health, especially for growing children, or that sugar is the body’s source for energy. No mention is made that fats, for instance, are necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, the production of hormones, the development of the neurological system and brain function. The clear message is that fats and sugars are bad and to be avoided.

As nutritious as the other foods are, promoting such restrictions of fats and sugars in children’s diets are not supported by any sound evidence and go far beyond any expert recommendations. Worse, such diets have been shown to leave young people short on calories and nutrients and result in harm to their health and school performance.

It’s a diet, not a lifestyle

The PTA Guide reinforces popular food fears and focus on weight control. It’s a dieter’s view of eating, complete with avoidance of foods seen as fattening or ‘unhealthy,’ and a fixation on exercise in terms of calorie burning and weight management. That’s not a healthy lifestyle, it’s a diet.

GlaxoSmithKline, whose weight loss interests are well known to JFS readers, is a sponsor of the PTA educational campaign and paid for this book. The PTA’s Healthy Lifestyles Month is also another project supported by Action for Healthy Kids — the anti-childhood obesity initiative focused on schools, created in 2002 in response to the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity. Former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher, is the founding chair. It’s a policy lobbying collaborative of the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National PTA and the Department of Education, Aetna Foundation, the American Public Health Association, and others.

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