Junkfood Science: Moving from skinny Santas to skinny kids

March 12, 2008

Moving from skinny Santas to skinny kids

This week, the country’s new Surgeon General kicked off his latest childhood obesity initiative with a nationwide tour that began in Charleston, West Virginia. “Healthy Youth for a Healthy Future” is the name of this new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ campaign to recognize obesity prevention programs that promote ‘healthy’ eating habits and active lifestyles.

This is the second news-making childhood obesity move of the new Surgeon General, Dr. Steven K. Galson, M.D., MPH, who took office last October. His first, which gave most Americans their first introduction to him and an idea of what was in store, came in December when he declared that Santa Claus is too fat to be a good role model for children. As he told the Boston Herald: “It is really important that the people who kids look up to as role models are in good shape, eating well and getting exercise... Santa is no different.”

“Healthy Youth for a Healthy Future” was first introduced in November when Surgeon General Galson established a Childhood Overweight and Obesity Prevention Council. As Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported, this Council was made up of stakeholders and HHS agency officials to strengthen federal childhood obesity programs, such as the CDC’s School Health Index, the National Institute of Health’s children’s activity and nutrition program, the FDA’s healthy food choices program, the Indian Health Services diabetes prevention programs, and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports’ National Fitness Challenge.

Plans for a new National Center for Physical Development and Outdoor Play were simultaneously announced, which will assist the federal Head Start program in educating children and their parents about ‘healthy’ eating and physical activity. The HHS offered a $12 million grant to create the center and $10 million for Head Start playground projects.

As JFS readers will remember, the federal Head Start program, funded with over $6.96 billion this fiscal year, has made reducing childhood obesity a mandate, with a compulsory “Healthy Kids” program to cut calories, fats and sugar from children’s diets. National Head Start programs are also being enrolled in physical fitness program, NikeGo Head Start. Nike is the largest private funder of the Head Start lobbying group, National Head Start Association (the second largest funder is Johnson & Johnson, the world’s largest health product company and parent company of RWJF). NikeGo co-founded Shaping America’s Youth in 2003, to coordinate the government’s childhood obesity goals and develop a national action plan. The full story was covered here.

Surgeon General Galson began his nationwide tour to highlight the “problem” of childhood obesity by telling media that childhood obesity has reached a “crisis point” and that he is alarmed by the magnitude and growth of the problem. In promoting “Healthy Youth for a Healthy Future,” he said combating childhood obesity will require efforts from “every level of government and every level of the community.” He said that school programs must carry over into homes in order to combat the number of kids with “weight problems.” He equated public initiatives to make physical activity and a good diet seen as citizen’s responsibility with “what we did to tobacco... and taking it out of society and acceptable social engagement in this country.”

According to Dr. Galson, more needs to be done about childhood obesity, claiming: “We may be facing the first generation, our children, who dies earlier and at greater risk of key diseases like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, than we are. So our kids could die earlier than their parents if we don't do something about this.”

The mission of the nation’s Surgeon General is to “serve as America's chief health educator by providing Americans the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury.” As he described his duties in his college paper, his job is to communicate the best science, evidence and data to Americans.

As such, the country might reasonably expect their Surgeon General to know the government’s own statistics on child weights, as provided by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. These have shown that there have been no significant increases in the numbers of U.S. children considered “overweight” since 1999-2000. There is no epidemic of childhood obesity.

The country might reasonably expect their Surgeon General to have read the Dept. of Health and Human Services’ own Health United States 2007 report, which found no medical evidence of a crisis of childhood obesity or for a critical need to address childhood obesity. Children are not expected to live shorter lives than their parents, but are actually healthier and expected to live longer than at any other time in our history. Babies born in 2004 can expect to live 75.2 years if male and 80.4 if female. Compared to babies born in 1990, boys today are expected to live 3.4 years longer and girls 1.6 years longer.

The country might reasonably expect the Surgeon General to have read the evidence provided by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which is charged with issuing careful, evidence-based findings that are supposed to be used by federal government for sound public health programs. After a comprehensive review of 40 years of evidence on childhood obesity screening and interventions, it has found no quality evidence to support or recommend behavioral interventions (diet and activity) for overweight in children and adolescents or that such programs improve health outcomes or physiological measures, such as blood lipids (“cholesterol”), glucose tolerance, blood pressure or physical fitness. Childhood obesity interventions, however, do risk harming children, they warned. The USPSTF concurred with the American Heart Association’s 1996 Scientific Statement for Healthcare professionals in concluding there was no evidence that any interventions to reduce or prevent childhood obesity — no matter how well-intentioned, comprehensive, restrictive, intensive, long in duration, and tackling diet and activity in every possible way — have been effective, especially in any beneficial, sustained way.

If the Surgeon General and the HHS are not actually following science or medical evidence, even the government’s own, what are these programs really about?

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