Junkfood Science: Who are the real winners and losers when young people are taught to eat to win?

July 16, 2008

Who are the real winners and losers when young people are taught to eat to win?

For children and teen athletes, what their coaches say is gospel. Most parents probably trust that the information being given their impressionable children is credible and in their best interests. It would be unthinkable that young people would be used to sell products or being put at risk for eating disorders.

The fact that eating disorders and spurious food beliefs are widespread among teachers and coaches isn't well known among the public. As previously covered, when child nutrition and eating disorder experts at the University of Sydney in Australia, examined the knowledge, beliefs and attitudes among graduating physical education and home economics teachers, astoundingly, they found nearly 9 out of 10 were giving teens unsound to dangerous information about food, eating practices, fad diets and weight control. Most demonstrated a lack of nutrition education about nutritional needs for teens, and there was a high prevalence of eating disorders, and even dangerous weight management practices, admitted among the health and PE teachers, themselves.

We were given a troubling example of how young people can be put at risk in an article in the Charlotte Observer, as writer Kristine Crane interviewed teenage girls being trained at a local dance school. One 17 year old said she used to not worry when she’d grab a Big Mac before her 5-hour dance practices: “But after hearing Toni Branner's lecture on nutrition at her dance class two years ago... ‘I got scared after hearing what I was doing to my body,’ she said.” Branner told her that her repeated cases of strep throat “was because of those Big Macs.” As the Charlotte Observer reported:

Eating to win

Branner, a Charlotte exercise physiologist, speaks regularly to teenage athletes... To make her point about the perils of Big Macs, she made a Crisco burger: She spooned Crisco onto a bun to show how much fat is in a standard McDonald's meal — quarter pounder with cheese, medium fries and medium milkshake. The girls said "ew" when Branner was finished. The meal, she said, has 58 grams of fat, about 90 percent of the daily recommended intake. Then she unspooled bunches of sugar packets taped to a can of Sunkist and a packet of M&Ms to show how much sugar each contains...

Branner promotes a whole foods diet abundant in raw fruits and vegetables (nine to 13 each day), whole grains and protein-packed foods such as hummus and peanut butter... She decided to write a book, "The Care and Feeding of a Dancer"... Branner also wrote a guide on healthy eating for athletes and, most recently, for soccer players.

She explains how all athletes produce an excess of what's called oxidative stress that can damage organs and muscles and lead to diseases such as cancer. That's why athletes, especially, should eat an abundance of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables to neutralize the effects. Branner told the dancers that bad food would make them sluggish dancers, and it could make them sick adults...

A common pop belief is that antioxidant supplements, and lots of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, can avert the damage of free radicals and prevent just about every chronic disease of aging. Countless people have come to believe that if they’re not consuming vast amounts of flavonoids and produce in their diet every day, then they’re not eating right and not doing everything they need to stay healthy.

The free radical theory of aging forms the basis for the promotion of antioxidants — including those products said to contain super concentrations of flavonoids and antioxidants from whole fruits and vegetables — in the anti-aging and preventive health movement. But it’s based on misunderstandings of how cells detect and repair the damage from free radicals and the important roles that free radicals have in normal body functions and hormones. So, not surprisingly, decades of clinical trials continue fail to find support for the ability of antioxidant vitamins to reduce premature deaths, cancers, heart disease... or that they hold any special healthful virtues or powers to heal or prolong life. [Antioxidants’ role in a healthy diets was covered here. Super foods and supplements with fruit and vegetable concentrates, such as Super Reds, were covered here, along with an explanation of what flavonoids and antioxidants really are and the potential risks of these products especially for young women of childbearing age.]

As the Charlotte Observer article went on to reveal, giving girls unsound nutritional and health information and scaring them about bad foods, fats and sugars was presented as teaching them “healthy eating.” It was seen as acceptable since it wasn’t specifically stated to be about weight. “Absent from Branner’s message is emphasis on weight,” the article said, while noting that eating disorders are still prevalent in dance academies. But no mention was made of the added nutritional needs of teen athletes, that over-exercising can be a symptom of an eating disorder, or the risks for female athlete triad, also called anorexia athletica, among young dancers, especially among those with disordered, restrictive eating, obsession with “healthy eating” and food fears.

The dancers Branner has trained say they don't diet — they just eat healthfully and are able to maintain a natural [thin] weight. They do let themselves splurge on occasion... a Weir dancer treats herself to ice cream every other week... Being healthy has allowed them to handle an intense lifestyle that includes 15 to 20 hours of dance practice a week, plus school and homework.

Sometimes their friends who don't dance try to get them to eat junk food, but the dancers' peer pressure to eat well is stronger, they say. "We bully each other. 'If you're getting a soda, you're leaving the table,'" said Taylor. "When we have slumber parties, you don't find junk food."

The article didn’t disclose much information about Toni Branner, who is having such an influence on these young women. According to her website, she’s an exercise physiology and directs the University of North Caroline Employee Health and Fitness Center. Her speaking and consulting business, Fitness Concepts, offers talks on anti-aging and living to 100 years, wellness, and eating for athletic performance. Her newsletter, “Care and Feeding of a Dancer” is distributed to her dance students and customers. Each one devotes at least half the space to emphasizing the purported need for exorbitant amounts of whole fruits and vegetables, and health claims surrounding antioxidants. There’s a reason for that. They are advertisements for Juice Plus+ and a sales tool she uses to sell the products.

What wasn’t revealed in the newspaper article, Toni Branner is a distributor and leading promoter for Juice Plus+, a “whole food” dietary supplement said to contain the nutrients from 17 fruits, vegetables and grains. For just $41.50 per month, the product promises to provide all the all the antioxidants and phytochemicals found in the whole foods for people who find it hard to eat at least 7-13 servings a day. “If you're like most people,” its website says, “you don't eat enough fruits or vegetables or enough variety. And those fruits and vegetables that we do eat tend to be overprocessed, over-cooked, or too far removed from the field.” Scientists and nutritionists have learned the “disease fighting and preventive powers found in fruits and vegetables,” according to Juice Plus. But, it warned: “it’s advice we ignore at our peril.”

Juice Plus is sold through a multi-level marketing scheme, where people, working as independent distributors make money from their sales, as well as from a percentage of the sales of those who they recruit as new distributors. MLM and pyramid schemes are listed on many attorney generals' top ten lists of consumer complaints. You can find more information at MLM Watch.org. A few years ago, the National Council Against Health Fraud issued a position paper on MLM health product companies. It provided important precautions for consumers, as well as described the harm that’s come to people who’ve gotten mixed up in them. Dr. Stephen Barrett, M.D., NCAHF Vice President, examined more than 100 MLM companies offering health-related products and concluded “that every one of them has made false or misleading claims in their promotional materials.”

This dancing teacher writes to parents:

Billy, Jenna, Will and I have taken the fruit and vegetable Juice Plus+ for almost six years. Although we already had a healthy diet, we still found it difficult to buy, prepare and consume the amount and variety of fresh fruits and vegetables recommended by current research. We have all enjoyed improved health and improved immunity...

I am extremely conservative in what I recommend to my clients. I was waiting for real scientific (university-based/double blind/placebo studies). During the past five years we have watched the quality research pour in. The results of these studies have made it impossible to keep this product to ourselves... Juice Plus+ is the most independently researched nutrition product in history. If you have trouble eating 5 to 10 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, Juice Plus+ is the next best thing...

P.S. If you have children between the ages of 6 and 15 they are eligible to take Juice Plus+ for free as a part of the Children’s Research Foundation. Call me for details.

The Juice Plus company webpage she links to, supposedly providing all of that “real scientific” [sic] offers a string of papers — but not a single one is a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial showing a benefit for actual health outcomes or in reducing premature deaths. The clinical research claims to show five benefits of their products, all vague, meaningless effects such as supports a healthy immune system, positive effects on indicators of cardiovascular wellness, helps protect DNA, reduces oxidative stress, and that they contain bioavailable phytonutrients.

Perhaps one of the more insidious sales tactics to convince parents that Juice Plus+ improves the health of children is its Children’s Research Foundation. Each child can participate in its “Children’s Health Study” and get the product for free, but must be accompanied by an adult, who pays exorbitant prices for the supplements. The research isn’t actually a study, but a compilation of returned questionnaires from customers. After ten years, no research has ever been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Only supposed interim results appear on their website. The study itself asks parents vague, subjective questions about their child’s health and wellness. There is no randomization, quantifiable data, blinding or use of a placebo, no note of the numbers who drop out, or any of the procedures that make credible scientific research. An excellent review of the Juice Plus+ Children’s Healthy Study by Dr. Barrett is here. While it brought in $394,889 for the company in 2005 alone, Dr. Barrett concluded: “It is clear that Children’s Health Study is nothing more than a gimmick to get families to buy Juice Plus+ products.”

Far more disturbing is using young girls, scaring them with nonsense, setting them up for lifetimes of unsound fears of food and disordered eating, and putting them at risk for devastating health problems.

© Sandy Szwarc. All rights reserved.

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