Childhood obesity rate plateau presents opportunities

by Staff
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LAS VEGAS — There has been a plateau in childhood obesity rates after a 20-year increase, and this offers food manufacturers an opportunity to review successful strategies as well as considering new ideas for promoting healthy living, according to a panel at the Institute of Food Technologists 2012 annual meeting and food exposition, held this past week in Las Vegas.

The National Center for Health Statistics has found about 33% of U.S. adults and 17% children are considered obese. This still equates to more than 12 million children and 78 million adults, but it is evidence of stabilization after rapid increases in the 1980s and 1990s.

“This may only be a temporary respite, giving us a bit of breathing space to think about solutions and maybe consider that the food industry did something right and things aren’t as dire as they used to be,” said Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington.

Dr. Drewnowski and other panelists agreed the plateau in obesity levels may be the result of including additional food labeling, consumer education and a natural leveling after years of increases. For future efforts, Dr. Drewnowski said surveys show the majority of calories and added sugars in the American diet come from the grocery store. This means continuing efforts should be aimed at meals and snacks purchased at the store and served at home rather than targeting restaurants or vending machines, which don’t account for as many daily calories.

Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional science at Penn State University, said research shows kids eat more food when given larger portion sizes, but this may be used positively to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. She referenced a study where preschoolers were given a large portion of fruit and thus increased their fruit intake by 70%. When the same study was done with vegetables, preschoolers upped their vegetable intake by 40%. Dr. Rolls said this shows work needs to be done to increase the desirability and palatability of vegetables. She suggested serving kids a large portion of vegetables at the start of the meal before anything else is on the plate and to hide the veggies by mixing them into other desirable foods, such as baking with pureed pumpkin or zucchini.

“Obviously, kids need to learn about vegetables and taste vegetables on their own,” Dr. Rolls said. “But think of this as recipe modification. It’s a strategy that works, and I think we need to try more.”

The panelists all said manufactured foods also play a significant role in providing more healthful options.

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