New approaches discussed at child obesity forum
By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Statewide - posted Wed., Nov. 21, 2012
Amidst reports that more than 25 percent of adults in Connecticut are obese - as are about 12 percent of teens - public health officials, educators, advocates and many others formed the audience at the Preventing Childhood Obesity forum presented at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, on Nov. 19, by the Connecticut Coalition Against Childhood Obesity.
State Senate President Donald Williams (D-29) said he is well aware that children's health and nutrition is critical, because it isn't just about obesity, but about long-term health.
“It will likely carry over into adulthood and will likely contribute to very serious health problems,” Williams said, “all leading to premature death. That's kind of the sobering fact. It affects how long they will live and the quality of life they will have – nothing less than that.”
Williams said the cost of healthcare is largely affected by the chronic conditions that require more intervention which could be lessened or avoided altogether if early nutrition was better. “It's very important that we take care of the basics early on,” he said, “[and] that we change – have better diets and better childhood health.”
Rockville High School Athletic Director and PE/Health Department Chair Steven Phelps said he was impressed with Williams' efforts. “He obviously is a great advocate for physical activity and nutrition,” Phelps said. “I'm glad he's on board, because not too many senators are that vocal about the school nutrition bill.”
Department of Public Health Commissioner Jewel Mullen said about one-third of kindergarten-through-third-graders in the state are also obese, and that tackling the issue of obesity also tackles other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. “It's so hard to get to cut through the political forces and the policy changes needed to get us healthier,” Mullen said. “It should motivate us, especially on behalf of our children.”
“As we have learned, change is hard,” Mullen said, adding that policies need to be created that get the real desired results. “We need to take responsibility, together, to create the society that we all can be healthier in, especially our children.”
Phelps said he also liked what Mullen and Pryor had to say about student achievement. “They both seemed to be in agreement that it's not about increasing the number of hours that we spend on reading and arithmetic, but the overall health and wellness of our children in order to see the improvement in those other areas,” Phelps said. “What so often happens is that health and physical education tends to be downsized in the number of minutes that we provide our children each day in our school systems.”
“There is an educational process that needs to occur in Connecticut's society,” said Stefan Pryor, commissioner with the State Department of Education, adding that the disparity in the numbers between gender and race are important. “When we talk about the achievement gap, these are inter-related phenomena, and they are not coincidental,” Pryor said. While schools are improving in some ways - for instance, by forming wellness teams and action plans on health - those tend to be modestly-funded and there are many more opportunities that could be explored, according to Pryor. “Why shouldn't the school cafeteria be an educational setting?” he asked. “Ought our students experience the lunchroom as a diagnostic experience to understand what they are eating and how to understand for a lifetime how to make nutritional choices?”
Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, said that change is going to require a new way of thinking, because simply educating and imploring the public about healthy choices simply doesn't work, especially since access to unhealthy foods is still extremely easy and prevalent in the societal mindset. Brownell said that focusing on getting an individual to change his or her mind has been a “failed experiment,” and “simply doesn't work.”
“Instead of focusing on the individual through education, can we do things that intervene in the individual's environment before they ever get involved in the decision-making process?” he asked, bringing up the concept of optimal defaults, or the opt-in vs. opt-out theory. Essentially, while people can still have the option of choosing unhealthy foods whenever they like, the idea is to make healthier foods the more-readily available options.
“Is dealing with obesity going to be a consequence of giving more good food to people or giving less bad food to people?” Brownell asked, adding that both are actually necessary. Studies, including a 20-year study at Harvard, showed that adding burgers, fries and sodas to a diet had more impact on adding to obesity than the absence of fruits and vegetables in a diet decreased obesity.
Brownell said a concept the Rudd center prefers working with is that of “virtuous cycles,” which are the opposite of vicious cycles. “If you identify what's driving the poor diet in the first place, then you try to develop environmental, structural or economic changes that would help move those drivers, and then evaluate whether you are having an impact,” he said, adding that one example (which has been studied) would be measuring how children eat in schools and whether they seek other snacks after school, as well as what they choose to eat.
The study also disproved the theory that when children are fed healthy food, it creates a craving for junk food. “If you have crappy food in schools, kids will eat crappy food [after school],” Brownell said, citing the study. “If you have better food in school, they'll eat healthier foods.”
Phelps said he also found Brownell's points about the approach to nutrition and wellness needs to evolve to a different mind set. “I enjoyed having him show us what hasn't been working, and that education and knowledge is really not good enough, and that we need to look at another way of thinking and entertain the thoughts about how we get kids and our public to understand what is acceptable to eat,” Phelps said.
Also in attendance was Miss Connecticut Emily Audibert, whose platform is “Let’s Move – The Fight Against Childhood Obesity,” which was started by First Lady Michelle Obama. Audibert said the event highlighted the anti-obesity activity in the state. “I thought Dr. Brownell had a lot of really interesting facts,” Audibert said, adding that she feels action is needed, as well as more discussion. “We can’t just always talk, we have to do,” she said. “We have to change the environment that we live in. You can no longer target the individuals. You have to target society as a whole. I think that was very powerful.”
Glastonbury Public Health Nurse Laura Perry said she liked the references to general healthy behavior, as opposed to just fighting obesity, as it is not the only problem. “I get really discouraged when I constantly hear about obesity,” she said. “Everybody benefits from exercising. Everybody benefits from eating healthy, so it doesn’t matter who is overweight. The reason we hear those numbers so much is because it’s easy to measure.” Obesity, or actually the lack thereof, can be hiding other problems if overall health isn’t addressed. “The problem is, we see all these kids who are not overweight, and they make the assumption that they have no health problems. If you look at what they eat, how little they exercise and how much time they spend in front of a [TV or computer] screen, you realize they have a problem and it’s not going to show up in their waistline until they’re 50, and then it’s going to show up in the health issues they have.”
Overall, Perry said, the state is on the right track. “I’m proud of the effort here in Connecticut. I think there are a lot of parents that are interested in the topic,” Perry said, adding that she liked what Brownell had to say. “He talked about how if he reaches out to parents and shows them that it’s part of the development of their child, they’re more interested in the topic. It’s changing how we think about it, and it’s got to start with the parents.”