Preventing Childhood Obesity

Are Food and Beverages Making Kids Sick?

By: Nancy Trout, MD, MPH

Several recent news articles and health reports related to our food and beverage environment shed new light on the old adage, “we are what we eat,” and I would add, what we drink.

Food Concerns

A recent opinion article in the New York Times, titled “Our Food Is Killing Too Many of Us,” asks the simple question of what is making Americans so sick. The simple answer: our food. Poor diets comprised of energy dense, nutrient poor processed foods are the leading cause of mortality in the United States, and lead to obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. The total economic cost of obesity is estimated at $1.7 trillion, or almost 10 percent of our gross domestic product, the authors state.

A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics reports that 1 in 5 adolescents has pre-diabetes with increased cardiometabolic risks. Also, the prevalence of both pre-diabetes and diabetes is much higher in individuals with obesity, according to the article.

Beverage Concerns

Sugar sweetened beverages are similarly causing an undue level of poor health. Liquid sugar in beverages such as sodas, juice drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweet coffees and teas accounts for 36 percent of added sugar in the American diet. Liquid sugar is processed differently than complex dietary sugars and can cause damage to the liver and pancreas. Excess added sugar consumption is linked to obesity, diabetes, liver disease, and heart disease. The University of California San Francisco’s SugarScience initiative aims to raise awareness about this issue.

Fatty liver disease from sugar sweetened beverages has become one of the most common chronic liver diseases in the country, affecting nearly 1 in 3 adults. A recent pediatric nutrition study found that two-thirds of infants and 98 percent of toddlers consume added sugar daily. Racial and ethnic disparities exist within this population, as the authors found that Non-Hispanic Black toddlers and Hispanic toddlers consume more than White or Asian toddlers. These statistics are particularly concerning given that minority children also have the highest rates of pediatric obesity.

Addressing The Public Health Crisis

Fortunately, advances in both nutrition science and policy are beginning to address this public health crisis. A consensus policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers guidance for beverage consumption in children less than 5 years old. The report encourages infants in the first year of life to drink only breast milk or formula, as well as water after 6 months. The report also states that water and unflavored cow’s milk should be the go to beverages for children ages 1 to 5 years old. The pediatric community also recognizes the importance of the first 1,000 days from conception to 2 years of age as essential for establishing healthy food and beverage habits and for preventing obesity.

With the goal of reducing the obesity epidemic, Kohl’s Start Childhood Off Right (SCOR) is scaling up our program to disseminate healthy eating and active living messaging in pediatric practices and community organizations around Hartford, including early care and education and faith-based facilities. The health care community must also continue to work with community stakeholders to raise awareness about the impact of food and beverages on our health and well-being. We must also advocate for public health policies that hold the food and beverage industry accountable and promote actionable solutions to this overarching problem.

The food system affects not only our health, but also our economy and our environment. We are what we eat and drink, and we can be better and healthier.

Read more of our blogs that focus on childhood obesity prevention.

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

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