Junkfood Science: War on childhood obesity is showing its desperation

May 19, 2008

War on childhood obesity is showing its desperation

How do we respond to those scaring children, becoming increasingly more hysterical and outrageous, in ways that might hurt them? If it was someone in your living room or your child’s school saying such stuff to your child, you would intervene to protect your child and other children.

What if it came from medical professionals behind a national political agenda and written by science journalists in the newspaper of our nation’s capital? As much as one might find it easier to play it safe, politically and professionally, and let it pass without saying anything, one can’t. History has shown us the costs of silence and complicity. It wouldn’t be right not to speak out.

The Washington Post began a week-long series on Saturday, seemingly to create panic over childhood obesity. It is so over-the-top, even Google News appears to have largely ignored it, and surprisingly few other publications across the country have picked up its syndicated series. Perhaps, to their credit, editors recognize that it is nothing more than a string of anecdotes, unsubstantiated claims and off the wall predictions — rather than credible science, evidence or balance. In fact, its sensationalized rhetoric is so wildly out of control, it betrays a desperation in trying to convince us all of the need to be freaked out.

Brief review with counter perspectives and a few missing pieces

The Washington Post series has used as its sole source of information the leaders in creating a childhood obesity crisis and behind the claims that have been repeated so often they’ve become gospel in the war on obesity, key among them Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the Obesity Society.* Science writer, Rob Stein, was a panelist at last month’s RWJF “Active Living Research Annual Conference” that was themed around integrating RWJF ‘research’ into public policies. Stein’s panel gave the media perspective and talked about “what makes a good story.” While there is no transcript of his talk, might sensationalized wordsmithing been recommended for creating a story to bring people around to RWJF’s policies?

He and Susan Levine’s article accuses children of being afflicted with toxic fat that is destructive to their well-being and puts every major organ at risk with probably irreversible damage. The carefully chosen language manipulates emotions and elicits fears, rather than impartially and calmly presenting accurate scientific evidence as one might expect from science journalists. Fat children is a catastrophe that threatens to shorten the lives of an entire generation, they write. “The future health and productivity of an entire generation — and a nation — could be in jeopardy.”

Their series opens with a feature video from Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., president of RWJF, who had announced last year that RWJF was committing $500 million over the next five years with their goal to build “the missing sense of national urgency about childhood obesity.” Readers will remember that her claims were so extreme at that press conference, she actually said children were fat because they ate too much bad foods and were inactive and, by her math, this “energy gap” would mean the average teen would gain as much as 1,042.85 pounds over the next ten years. She had also admitted, by the way, there was no evidence in support for any of their far-reaching policy recommendations. She is quoted in the Washington Post as claiming: “Many of these kids may never escape the corrosive health, psychosocial and economic costs of their obesity.” In her video, she says that we have millions of kids whose future paints "a pretty bleak picture."

The Post’s article also reported claims of a “huge burden of disease” these children will bring to the population, by William Dietz, M.D., Ph.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He had partnered with Kaiser Permanente “to develop a national broad-based approach to the public health crisis of obesity,” and their “roadmap for advocacy and action” meeting was jointly sponsored by RWJF, CDC, American Association of Health Plans, Health Partners, and the National Business Group on Health. JFS readers may most remember when he organized that Expert Committee on Childhood Obesity which developed the new clinical guidelines for the management of child and teen fat children recently released by the AMA, CDC and HHS. Those guidelines received considerable negative feedback from readers and parents.

Then there’s our U.S. Surgeon General Steven Galson, M.D., MPH, who is quoted in the Post as claiming that child obesity is nothing less than “a national catastrophe.” JFS readers remember that his first news-making initiative against childhood obesity when he took office was to declare that Santa Claus is too fat to be a good role model for children and his second was his nationwide campaign, “Healthy Youth for a Healthy Future.” This campaign was born in the Childhood Overweight and Obesity Prevention Council he established, made up of stakeholders in the government’s healthy eating and physical activity programs. He is currently making his way around the country, talking to schools, politicians and even joining Lavizzo-Mourey and Dietz at CME programs for healthcare providers.

The Washington Post also quoted claims from Melinda S. Sothern, Ph.D., CEP, who they identified only as being from the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. What wasn’t disclosed, is that she is director of the pediatric obesity section and directs the Prevention of Childhood Obesity Laboratory at the LSU Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. (Information on its founding, funding sources and research here and here). She is also a member of the Obesity Society, leading its 2007 scientific meeting in New Orleans on initiatives to prevent childhood obesity, and she served on that same Expert Panel on Childhood Obesity. In the Washington Post article, Professor Sothern said obesity exerts a cruel price that “robs children of their childhood...the natural enjoyment of being a kid — being able to play outside, run. If they have high blood pressure, they have a constant risk of stroke.” (Different perspectives and medical information on blood pressures in fat children here and here.)

Another unidentified member of both the Obesity Society and that Expert Panel, Jeffrey B. Schwimmer, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at the University of California at San Diego, said in the article that “obese children are victimized and bullied” and treated differently by other children and teachers. But the Post authors didn’t follow through with this information or examine the role of anti-obesity scaremongering in fostering such harmful discrimination of fat children.

The claims, rather than the science, continued to come fast and furious, all of which have already been addressed here. One made by the Post authors warrants a special note. They blamed the epidemic of fat children for higher hospital costs and for potentially adding “billions of dollars to the U.S. healthcare bill.” (This myth turns out to be hype, too, as explained here and here.)

Finally, the Washington Post authors saved the most outrageous claims for the end, quoting from David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., identified only as an obesity expert at Children's Hospital in Boston. JFS readers will probably remember him as the originator of that illogical claim that “a single 12-ounce soft drink with sugar per day raises a child’s risk of obesity by 60 percent” — which, when the actual research was examined, was found not to be true at all. But the myth that soda pop causes childhood obesity was born and lives on. He made news last year telling kids at his pediatric weight loss program, Optimal Weight for Life Program, that fake foods are bad and make them fat and diseased. He is also recognized for making equally absurd claims in medical publications that a fat child will have a heart attack before age 30 and that childhood obesity is “a massive tsunami headed for the United States.” The Washington Post also failed to disclose that he’s with the Obesity Society and also served on that Expert Panel on Childhood Obesity.

According to the Post article, Ludwig now compares the childhood obesity crisis to global warming. “We don't have all the data yet, but by the time all the data comes in it's going to be too late,” he was quoted as saying. “You don't want to see the water rising on the Potomac before deciding global warming is a problem.”

After all of that piling on of a single viewpoint from people affiliated with one group of vested interests, the science writers then balanced it with factual information from medical, nutrition, child development, obesity and eating disorder professionals, and scientists, presenting other viewpoints, right? Readers also learned the potential harms resulting from these anti-obesity messages and of the proposed interventions, right?

Wrong and wrong.

[I am edited myself here, but regular JFS readers will understand exactly what merits saying.]

The most heartbreaking aspects of this series are the children, who’ve been indoctrinated by these scares. In today’s video, a boy said he believes that fat is like a “spread of the plague or something” and that he would have a heart attack and die unless he keeps his weight under control, exercises and eats right. He is concerned about his cholesterol because if it gets high it “blocks blood flow and you’ll die.” He is only 12 years old.

While it seems there will always be people who will readily believe whatever they’re told to think, and whatever slick marketing shows them on television; for growing numbers of thinking Americans, the claims about childhood obesity are becoming so unsound and exaggerated, they are seeing it for what it is: groupthink.


© 2008 Sandy Szwarc. All rights reserved.

* The Obesity Society was formerly called the North American Association for the Study of Obesity. The American Obesity Association also merged with it on Sept. 5, 2006. Attorney Morgan Downey had been Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer of the AOA for a decade and since June 2006 has been Executive Vice President of the Obesity Society. “Recognition of obesity as a disease is a central goal of the AOA, founded in 1995,” according to its mission statement. This lobbying organization led the change of IRS rules (IRS Ruling 202-19), announced on April 2, 2002, which were reworded to say: "Obesity is medically accepted to be a disease in its own right," and enabled weight loss treatments to be claimed as a medical deduction. AOA was part of HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson’s obesity roundtable in 2003 and lobbied the FDA that “obesity is the most prevalent, fatal and chronic disease of the 21st Century.” It was instrumental in the FDA revising its guidelines for reviewing and approving weight loss prescription drugs to expedite their release. It lauded Secretary Thompson’s famous 2004 launch of the HHS campaign against obesity called “Healthy Lifestyles and Disease Prevention,” and increasing NIH annual funding for obesity research to more than $400 million. The AOA also successfully lobbied to have weight loss interventions covered by Medicare (and hence, by most insurers) and hailed HHS Secretary Thompson when he eliminated the Medicare policy that had said obesity is not a disease. The AOA-Obesity Society has been actively lobbying for coverage of bariatric surgeries, for the promotion of “healthy” foods and taxation of fattening foods. Since 2006, the Obesity Society has been a member of the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) Advisory Committee, which sets the clinical care guidelines healthcare providers must follow, and in recent months, the NCQA obliged by issuing two new guidelines calling for BMI assessment for all children and adults and mandatory reporting of counseling for nutrition and physical activity. “It will mean that thousands of patients in managed care plans, Medicare and Medicaid will have their BMI measured and tracked and that weight will become a topic for physician-patient interaction,” said Morgan Downey. [Click on image to enlarge.]

Much of the information we hear about obesity, healthy eating and weight control is driven by these dominant interests, yet it is also why we rarely hear contrary information. Few scientists or medical professionals dare speak out against them without risking their careers and reputations. We were poignantly reminded of this in February when the prestigious upcoming President of the Obesity Society himself, David Allison, Ph.D., made the mistake of saying that mandating calorie counts on restaurant menus wasn’t sound. He quickly found himself castigated and run out the door and replaced by Gary Foster, Ph.D., who authored that School Nutrition Policy study of the government’s healthy eating and physical activity guidelines. In a surreal irony, one of the largest special interest lobbies in the country came down on one of its own for having conflicts of interest by consulting for companies. As Dr. Roy Poses, M.D., of Health Care Renewal noted: “[D]id the Obesity Society cast out a leader because he was aligned with commercial interests opposed to the commercial interests that provide most of the society's support? That is, was he cast out not because he had conflicts of interest, but because he did not have the same conflicts of interest as the society?”

If this happens to one of its own biggest names, you can imagine how few little guys will risk their livelihoods to say anything against the groupthink.

Part Two on Washington Post series here.

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