Efforts to reduce childhood obesity showing promise

by Keith Nunes
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Efforts to improve the diets of children are showing promise and gaining greater attention as positive results are starting to emerge and the subject continues to receive attention, which subsequently will lead to more awareness among consumers, public health officals and the food industry. The result is the progress must continue as children’s nutrition and health will remain top-of-mind issues in the coming year and beyond.

It was not long ago that childhood obesity rates were rising and few observers projected the rate of growth to slow. Yet this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released findings showing that the incidence of obesity among children appears to have plateaued nationwide, and that it is declining in such major metropolitan areas as New York and Philadelphia. The CDC data support the findings of a study released in September by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showing the incidence of childhood obesity declining in Philadelphia and New York as well as the states of California and Mississippi.

The foundation highlighted efforts in Philadelphia to ensure a variety of nutritious foods make it into urban areas served only by a few supermarkets in an effort to improve consumer choice. The group also took note of efforts to improve school nutrition standards in New York and Philadelphia as well as California and Mississippi.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says the evidence suggests changes that make healthy foods available in schools and communities and integrate physical activity into people’s daily lives are working to reduce childhood obesity rates. But the group adds more efforts are needed to implement the types of sweeping changes nationwide and to address the health disparities gap that exists among underserved communities and populations.

The food and beverage industry deserves some of the credit for the progress being made in improving children’s nutrition. Efforts to include more whole grains and reduce the fat and sugar content of foods, as well as fortifying foods intended for the children’s market are all delivering positive results. And it is apparent product development efforts are not slowing.

This month the National Restaurant Association published its “What’s hot in 2013” survey of more than 1,800 chefs who are members of the American Culinary Federation, and topics associated with children’s health and nutrition occupied three of the top 10 positions in the ranking. Healthful children’s meals held the No. 3 position, children’s nutrition as a culinary theme ranked No. 5, and whole grain items in children’s meals ranked No. 10. Such an intense focus on the health and nutrition of children highlights the depth with which the subject has gained attention, particularly in the discipline of product development.

Perhaps the most sweeping change to affect the foods and beverages served to children occurred this year with the US Department of Agriculture’s nutritional changes to what may constitute a federally subsidized school meal. There has been no shortage of debate regarding the changes, but the effort has led to quite a bit of product reformulation to meet the new standards and it is hoped the efforts may translate into lessons that may be transferred to the mainstream market.

Despite the progress, it must be noted that childhood obesity remains a significant challenge for the public health community and the food and beverage industry alike. Progress is being made, and it is imperative that it continue. The nutritional composition of many products has improved in the past decade, and it is exciting to consider what breakthroughs made during the next decade may build upon those improvements.

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