Junkfood Science: Toddlers and bunnies

March 16, 2008

Toddlers and bunnies

Programs capitalizing on fears about childhood obesity and health have been targeting growing numbers of parents of babies and toddlers. While perhaps well-intentioned, the information parents hear about the need to prevent baby fat and puppy fat on their little ones, as well as advice on nutrition and ‘healthy’ eating, could risk the lives, well-being and health of their children.

Baby fat fears have been the natural consequences of today’s endless admonitions about preventing childhood obesity and for ‘healthy’ eating. Among today’s parents and young people, what is thought to be ‘healthy’ eating is increasingly less healthful and increasingly dangerous. Sadly, parents rarely hear that much of the information they and their children are hearing is driven by marketing, both financial and ideological, rather than founded on good medical and nutritional science; and pediatricians rarely learn the information being given parents and children so that they can intervene to protect their young patients.

Nothing better demonstrates this than the “healthy eating messages” given children and their parents during the week-long event called Eat Fit Keep Fit. This campaign has been held across the UK each February for the past four years “to help parents make appropriate choices when it comes to selecting foods for their children,” all to prevent childhood obesity. Olympic stars, such as Sally Gunnell, lend their support for the campaign and its accompanying nutrition booklet, heightening media coverage.

This campaign is from Tumble Tots, which has gyms (more than 500 just in the UK) offering classes to encourage ‘fitness’ for babies, through 3 years of age and preschool age. With more than 100 franchises, nearly a million children worldwide have been enrolled in Tumble Tots fitness programs since it was launched in 1968 by the coach of the British Olympic Gymnastics team. Lest you think its Eat Fit Keep Fit campaign is an obscure little marketing campaign, Tumble Tots was just named a finalist in this years Franchise Marketing Awards.

In “What your child should be eating,” Tumble Tots tells parents that it is important for them to restrict ‘bad’ fats, including dairy products, sugars and salt in their toddlers’ diets. Instead, parents are told that tots need low-fat foods, high in fiber from raw fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates in wholegrains like brown rice and wholewheat.

There are no reminders that more than one-third of children’s daily calories need to come from fats, which are essential for health and growth, and 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 sugars are bad and to be avoided, with no mention that sugars are the body’s source of energy and needed by growing children. As good as fruits and vegetables are, protein and dairy foods are barely mentioned. There is no note that toddlers and preschoolers have tummies too small to get the calories they need to grow when fed bulky, low-calorie foods, and that many nutrients they need aren’t absorbed well from high fiber diets, while other nutrients are more bioavailable when foods are cooked.

But, this is just the cursory introduction — parents are referred to its 'Eat Fit Keep Fit' booklet, provided by Organix, for the full story on healthy eating and recipes. In it, parents are shown the types of foods their toddlers ‘should’ be eating and provided with recipes.

It is all produce, claimed to be necessary for their “disease-fighting antioxidants,” fiber and vitamins. The message is that produce is ‘healthy’ eating.

Take this recipe for toddlers, for example, which contains: a raw beet, raw carrot, raw apple, raw cabbage tossed with dried currants or cranberries, a few sunflower seeds with minuscule amounts of flavoring. Babies and toddlers, it seems, are rabbits. Many adults would find this fiber difficult to digest and unsubstantive, let alone a toddler. Missing are major nutrients, fats, protein, dairy and calories growing bodies need.

Organix, as it turns out, is an organic food company. “Obesity has become a concerning subject for parents,” Organix says. “Because of this, healthy eating for children is of paramount importance.” It equates foods that it considers not safe or nutritious for children, called “junk food,” as being anything that isn’t all-natural or that contains sugars, salt or fats.

To drink, it says toddlers should be given only water, organic milk, diluted organic juices, and diluted milk drinks. And doctors wonder where parents get these ideas to water down their babies’ milk and juice, trying to prevent their babies from “getting a bit chunky!”

Even before noting the nutritional dangers, this information jeopardizes health. According to the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, which caution that unpasteurized (raw, organic) milk or juices are a serious safety risk, as pasteurization eliminates Listeria and salmonella, while organic and regular milks and juices are equally nutritious and wholesome, as well as less costly.

But most concerning for pediatric medical professionals, is that these fear-based dietary beliefs leading parents to restrict fats, sugars, salts and calories, epitomize those seen in growing numbers of children suffering from nutritional problems, failing to thrive (inadequate weight gain) and falling behind on linear growth, being documented by pediatricians, such as Dr. Michael T. Pugliese, M.D. and colleagues at the Department of Pediatrics, North Shore University Hospital, Manhasset, and Cornell University Medical College in New York. These pediatricians found that the parents had been “concerned that the children would become obese, develop atherosclerosis, become junkfood dependent, and/or develop eating habits that the parents believed were unhealthy.”

With the intense focus on healthy eating and childhood obesity, many parents have understandably come to believe that restricting fats, sugars, salt and calories can prevent kids from becoming fat and later developing heart disease, diabetes or cancers, but such diets do none of those things. Nor are they normal or healthy for children. As Dr. John C. Kostyak at the University of Delaware found, children need more fat in their diets. His research has found their bodies need more fat to fuel growth processes, such as higher rates of protein synthesis, lipid storage and bone growth, and to meet their energy needs. Girls also have higher nutritional needs for fat. In a recent issue of Nutrition Journal, he and colleagues reported that low-fat diets do not meet the nutritional needs for children and can disrupt normal growth and development.

The National Academy of Science’s recommendations in 2002 were that children 1-3 years old be allowed as much as 40% fat, and children and teens up to 18 years of age consumer up to 35% of their calories as fat (25-35%). This is far different from what many parents and kids think. In fact, few parents have ever heard that fat restrictions for children aren’t universally supported in the medical literature. Low-fat diets have never been proven to be beneficial and could even be unsafe for children, concluded a review of the evidence by researchers at the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Georgetown University School of Medicine. Recently, the expert committee of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force reported that, while low-fat diets for growing children are popular with “healthy eating” advocates, there is no evidence they are effective in preventing obesity or heart disease. The USPSTF did, however, find evidence for harm from such diets, including subnormal growth and development. These concerns and the lack of evidence for restrictive diets in younger children hold true for older ones, as well.

The Eat Fit Keep Fit recommendations are similar to information given to American school children and parents through such programs as the National PTA’s (Parent Teacher Association) Healthy Lifestyles Month and the “Healthy Schools Program” distributed to more than 7 million children through Channel One.

It might seem easy to blame parents, even in a light-hearted way, for not thinking well and getting caught up by it all. As one new mother, Jemina Lewis, explained in the Telegraph:

The psychedelic world of motherhood

If I lose my thread and begin to segue wildly in all directions, forgive me: I have “mumnesia." This is an official medical condition, unveiled last week by a team of American scientists. It afflicts mothers in the first few months after giving birth, rendering them incapable of sensible thought. The combination of sleep-deprivation, hormonal fluctuations and the sudden rearranging of priorities means that they forget anything that isn't essential to the survival of their progeny. The mother who complains that her brain has turned to porridge is not being self-deprecating: she is stating a scientific fact.

As medical conditions go, mumnesia... reminds me of my student dabblings with drugs...the same sensation of looking at the world through a distorted lens, so that the most familiar people and places take on a new aspect... I can feel myself slipping into a parallel universe: one where phrases such as Tumble Tots and Tiny Talk may actually mean something; where conversations that would once have seemed boring to the point of hilarity become an illicit pleasure; where a pale-faced stranger pushing a pram is no longer invisible, but draped in Boadicea's finery: a warrior-heroine in her own quiet way. Such is the psychedelia of motherhood...

But it’s straightforward information they need (and, perhaps, some extra sleep). The evidence for health concerns in chubby babies, toddlers and children, and the need to teach them fitness and healthy eating has been examined in depth here. There is also no evidence that children benefit from salt restrictions. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines make no mention of restricting sodium for children; instead, it only recommends that specific population groups, such as older adults with hypertension, consume no more than 1,500 mg daily. Fears of sugar and beliefs that children today need sugar restrictions to improve health or prevent obesity are equally unsupported. The current Dietary Guidelines 2005 also make no specific recommendations for added sugars for children. And the beliefs surrounding dietary fiber and wholegrains are also based on misunderstandings of nutritional science.

‘Healthy eating’ education, as well-intentioned and intuitively correct as it might seem, is not benign. Much of today’s nutrition education is not only scientifically problematic, but is beyond children’s understanding and emotional development. As recently reviewed, children cannot grasp the complexities of dietary guidelines, which most adults don’t even comprehend, leaving them to come away believing in ‘good’ foods and fear other foods as being ‘bad’.

International child nutrition and eating expert and researcher, Jennifer O’Dea, MPH, PhD, from the University of Sydney in Australia, warned that with young people even unintentional “negative messages such as sugar and fat are ‘bad,’ and use of the term ‘junk food’ contribute to the underlying fear of food, dietary fat and eating problems.” According to her research, health education messages and government dietary guidelines since the 1970s, have resulted in an exponential rise in disordered eating and most young people have mistakenly come to believe that they are eating ‘healthy’ when they are actually dieting and restrictively eating.

According to NHANES III (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey), at least two-thirds of weight-conscious teenage girls, fat and thin, trying to eat “healthy” are now deficient in iron, calcium and other important nutrients. “Many teenage girls, already the most poorly nourished of any group in America, have stopped drinking milk or eating meat in their extreme fear of fat,” said Frances Berg, MS, author of Women Afraid to Eat. Children are also especially vulnerable to scares of dangers promoted by various special interest groups and have come to believe that many foods are bad and harmful.

It’s heartbreaking that from infancy, our children are being inundated with concerns about death and grown-up diseases, their body weights and shapes, and what they eat. Meanwhile, parents never hear that there is no reason for this worry. Most children are eating within the Dietary Guidelines and have even better diets than in past decades, and nearly all are even within the weights recommended by the government. The facts negate the need for obsessions with getting little ones ‘fit’ and for the massive programs to teach them to eat ‘right.’ But one’s heart goes out to young people and parents without these facts. Eating has become a minefield to navigate, with the only value of food seen in terms of its societal virtues and health properties, and not nourishment that tastes good and can be enjoyed without fear or guilt.

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