chubby children

I’m enthralled with the spring sunshine and having a major sweet-tooth attack…. and I just finished reading 3 more books on food:  Our Overweight Children: What Parents, Schools, and Communities Can Do to Control the Fatness Epidemic by Sharron Dalton; The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David A. Kessler; and Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. Quite a variety, yes, but I’m interested in all aspects of the subject.

First up, my thoughts on Our Overweight Children:

Our Overweight Children begins by presenting the dire weight situation among US children. One third of 6-19 year-olds are overweight or at risk (p 29). This should concern us because overweight children are more likely to be bullied, face numerous health risks and become obese adults.  If nothing else, the enormous cost of treating obesity-related heath problems should urge us to treat the obesity epidemic as a matter of importance. In addition low-income and minority families suffer from the highest rates of obesity.

Dalton addresses a myriad of subjects–from terminology to weight assessment to parents’ and childrens’ perceptions of their weight to eating disorders. But over the years, her research has led her to these five predictors of obesity:

1. Parental Obesity

2. Unhealthful eating patterns

3. Low Physical activity

4. Excessive “screen” time

5. Low socioeconomic status

But what impressed me most about Dalton’s book was that more than half of it focused on solutions to the obesity epidemic.  Yes, parents need to act, but she also stresses the need for support from schools and communities.

Dalton urges parents to take a middle ground – don’t let your kids eat whatever they want whenever they want it, but also don’t force them to eat only certain foods and “clear their plate”.  She suggests parents decide on the what, when and where of eating, while children choose how much and if. The goal is to help children develop a taste for a variety of healthy foods and also respond to cues of satiation. Our Overweight Children is full of specific and creative suggestions that foster not only healthy eating but also more healthy families. Her advice expands beyond “eat healthy foods in proper portions” to important life skills for any family.

Many would stop there, arguing that if a child is overweight his or her parent is to blame. But a remarkable amount of meals are now eaten away from the home – at schools, day cares, camps and after-school programs. As a community we need to ensure these places provide and promote healthy eating.  There are small steps we can take–like organizing “walking trains” to school–and more over-arching goals–such as demanding development that decreases dependence on cars. I hope parents, schools and communities alike begin to embrace Dalton’s realistic and holistic approach to helping prevent childhood obesity, but first we need to acknowledge our overweight children, not her’s, not mine, but ours.

Food on the Defensive

There are many dilemmas to the Western* way of life and mindset, and to me, a primary problem is the desire to neatly break-down and categorize things that are interconnected.  Another issue of the “Western way,” if you will, is the desire for quick and easy fixes – instant gratification. For example, if someone is struggling with depression, often they will be prescribed an anti-depressant rather than addressing the issue from a holistic approach that examines mind, body, and spirit.

Therefore, I value Michael Pollan’s integrated approach to food. He offers no quick fixes or outrageous promises (“Lose 15lbs in 15 days!”) but he does make a strong case against the Western diet and the food industry and so-called science that supports it.  And, thankfully, he offers an alternative to the Western diet other than subsisting off hunting and gathering.

Pollan emphasizes the need to not only examine what nutrients (vitamins, minerals, calories, grams of fat, sugar, etc) one consumes, but also in what form they are consumed (whole foods, processed foods, canned, peeled, etc), how they are consumed (three main meals, small samplings throughout the day, what order, what speed, etc) and even who they are consumed with (alone, friends, the TV). Then, of course, to examine one’s health we must also take into account their levels of physical activity, role in a community, mental state, spirituality and heredity.

So it’s easy to see why issues of food and health become difficult to study. There are countless variables. Pollan argues that the reductionist scientific method (a prime example of Western modernity) used by many nutritionists have come to erroneous conclusions because of their focus on only one aspect of something as complex as food and health.

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