Can government policy address the childhood obesity problem?

Just yesterday I received an email from the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) strongly criticizing the Trump Administration for their planned policy to remove childhood obesity from this list of federal priorities, and shift funding by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) away from chronic disease prevention. With this, they requested support for their effort to speak out against this policy change.

Pamela Schoenfeld
Source: Pamela Schoenfeld

As a registered dietitian, I am certain I will soon also be asked by my professional association to speak out against the reduction of federal monies for these programs. And yet, I am torn.

I too am very concerned about childhood obesity, not only for the long-term health of the individuals affected, but for their happiness and ability to fully enjoy life. An overweight child not only experiences social stigma, but equally as concerning, may not be able to participate in physical activities to the level of his or her peers. While I do not feel we should be pushing our children into highly competitive activities against their inclinations, I do think appropriate sports competition is both healthful and fun for most children. Even activities like playing tag, riding a bicycle, or playing on the playground can be more difficult when a child carries extra weight.

So why do I feel torn? It is simply because the efforts by the federal governemnt have failed to address the problem of obesity, and as pointed out by CSPI, rates of obesity among children is actually increasing.  Is the solution spending more at the federal level to push policy on our families, schools, and communities?

Well, if policy means building more accessible playgrounds and bike trails, then I am all for it. But if it means pushing the failed Dietary Guidelines for Americans by increasing educational and school lunch programs to make sure kids don’t eat too much salt, fat and saturated fat, and eat more grains, fruits and vegetables and eat less meat, then I am vehemently against it. Sure fruits and vegetables are great, but when we take away things like butter and salt, and push flavorless whole grain recipes on our kids and limit the best quality proteins for their growing bodies, we do them a great nutritional disservice. We also set them up for preferring foods like fried chicken fingers over chicken drumsticks because we have brainwashed parents (and almost everyone else) to believe that chicken skin and dark meat are nutritionally evil. So coat that boneless, skinless, chicken breast in bread, fry it in vegetable oil (toxic and rancid), and this is the perfect food for your growing child. Never mind that dark meat has more of the essential nutrients iron, zinc, and vitamin K2, and that chicken skin contains amino acids that nourish their ligaments and joints, not found so much in the muscle meat of a chicken breast.

As a dietitian, a mother, and now a grandmother, I  applaud all real efforts to help our children grow up healthy. These efforts come from grass-roots organizations that are working to promote healthy eating without creating restrictive dietary recommendations.  It also means encouraging our diverse population to embrace the foodways of their ancestors, proven to be not only delicious but nutrient-dense. In my practice, I try to reconnect families with the foods that their grandparents and great-grandparents traditionally prepared and served.

But unless and until our federal government agencies wake up and smell the most up-to-date nutrition research, I am glad the current administration may choose to de-prioritize funding obesity and chronic disease prevention initiatives by the USDA, HHS and CDC, with the exception of those that foster more active communities. In regards to nutrition policy, doing nothing would be vastly better than doing something that is ill-conceived and politically driven. As always, we must first do no harm.