Childhood Obesity Levels Off, Pressure on Advertisers Remains

kid and chipsA new study suggests that childhood obesity may be leveling off in the United States, after steadily increasing for decades. The finding comes as welcome news to parents, doctors and educators worried about health ramifications including heart disease and diabetes--but there will be no reprieve for food manufacturers, often lambasted by children's health activists for targeting children with ads for foods high in fat or sugar.

The study, published in the May 28 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, was based on data from the annual National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control from 1999-2006. It found that "the prevalence of [high body mass index]... among children and adolescents showed no significant changes between 2003-2004 and 2005-2006, and no significant trends between 1999-2006."

However, the study was quick to point out that there are still plenty of overweight kids. Overall, 31.9% of the children and adolescents had a BMI at or above the 85th percentile, widely used as a cut-off for being overweight, and 16.3% had a BMI at or above the 95th percentile, the technical cutoff for obesity.

Furthermore, some age groups and ethnicities are more prone to be overweight, or obese, than others. Finally, an editorial comment in the same issue of JAMA warned that "it is too early to know whether these data reflect a true plateau or a statistical aberration in an inexorable epidemic." Children's health activists certainly won't be relaxing the pressure on advertisers. Michael Jacobson, a pediatrician and founder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, echoed the warning that "it's too early to say whether the rise in obesity has leveled off, adding that "health advocates need to work every bit as hard to push the trend downwards to get back to the levels of the early 1970s."

According to Jacobson, CSPI will continue with its campaign to get "tighter national regulations to limit the marketing of unhealthy foods to kids" (as well as other initiatives not related to marketing). He said the current voluntary restrictions on advertising of unhealthy foods to children "can be undone at any moment. Government certainly has a role in getting much greater improvements in the kinds of products that are marketed to kids."

While CSPI doesn't expect legislative action this year, Jacobsen hopes to see some after the elections in November, when Democrats led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) may take up the issue.

The current voluntary self-policing is actually the result, in part, of CSPI's earlier efforts. CSPI threatened to bring a lawsuit against Kellogg in January 2006 under a Massachusetts law against junk-food advertising. In 2007, the CSPI threatened to bring similar lawsuits against 10 food manufacturers seeking substantial fines if they didn't adopt suitable guidelines for self-policing of advertising targeting children.

All the manufacturers eventually adopted self-regulatory standards that went beyond earlier voluntary standards adopted in 2006; in a typical concession, Kellogg agreed that its under-12 advertising will be limited to foods that have no more than 200 calories per serving, as well as no trans fat and no more than 2 grams of saturated fat.

Tags: activism, food
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