Preventing Childhood Obesity

Fostering Nutrition, Health and Wellness for All Children

By: Nancy Trout, MD, MPH

I recently read an alarming statistic in a pediatric news article: over 90 percent of parents surveyed purchase at least one meal per week for their children in a fast food establishment. Admittedly, fast food is a low cost, convenient and readily available option, especially in our cities where grocery stores may be less accessible. However, fast food tends to be higher in fat, sugar and salt than is recommended for children’s consumption, thereby making it an unhealthy option that can lead to negative health consequences such as obesity and diabetes.  An article published recently in American Journal of Public Health reported that less than 20 percent of kids’ meal packages automatically include healthy sides and beverages, with most offering French fries coupled with soda or juice as a beverage.

To improve the quality of kids’ meals in fast food and other restaurants and to negate some of the deleterious health impacts, lawmakers should pass laws that require healthier drinks and sides as the default option. That way, menu items such as french fries and soda would automatically be replaced with healthier sides such as apple slices and unflavored milk or water. California passed such a law last year, and in the current Connecticut legislative session, the Committee on Children is considering Raised Bill No. 7006, An Act Prohibiting the Inclusion of Certain Beverages on Children’s Menus. This bill would allow parents to choose from a list of healthier beverages for their children when they are eating out.

A recent report from the UConn RUDD Center for Nutrition Policy and Obesity found an increase in fast food advertising to children, with a total of almost $4 billion spent on fast food advertising to all consumers. The report also found increased disparities in advertising nutritionally poor, unhealthy foods, including fast food, candy, sugary drinks and snacks, to Black and Hispanic children and teens.  The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention obesity data shows that Hispanic (26%) and non-Hispanic Black (22%) children aged 2-19 years have higher obesity rates than non-Hispanic white (14%) children, and targeted advertising of unhealthy foods to these vulnerable populations likely contributes to these disparities.

Optimal nutrition is a critical factor in children’s overall health and wellness, especially for this at risk population. The Kohl’s Start Childhood Off Right (SCOR) program, within Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Health, uses both community outreach worker training and community wellness events to educate parents of infants and toddlers about healthy nutrition from birth. Such education includes the promotion of breastfeeding, responsive feeding, and the introduction of healthy complementary foods as young children develop their taste and food preferences. In addition to healthy nutrition, SCOR also promotes healthy beverages, especially water, physical activity, sleep and minimal screen time, all of which are essential to children’s overall health and wellness. The Hartford Childhood Wellness Alliance, a network of stakeholders with an interest in healthy nutrition and obesity prevention that was re-activated by SCOR, works to create cross-sector solutions that support community wellness, including policy promotion, healthy food access, reducing sugar sweetened beverage consumption, community gardens, and opportunities for physical activity.

Childhood obesity continues to be a complex problem in need of a comprehensive system’s approach. Such an approach must go beyond a primary care provider’s office to include legislative and community efforts that advocate for and create an environment that fosters health and wellness. Passing legislation to make fast food meals healthier for the children eating them is a small step in a healthier direction.

Nancy Trout, MD, MPH is co-director of Kohl’s Start Childhood Off Right, which is an initiative of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

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