Dr. L. Lee Coyne
Nutrition Consulting
Dr. Lee, the Healthy Professor

Childhood Obesity

Written by Dr. L. Lee Coyne.

Obese KidData exposing the national obesity disaster has become common fare for the media today. I won’t bore you with any more statistics but just remind you that the health hazards of carrying those extra pounds of fat are many and far reaching. Incidence of adult obesity is a depressing matter and even more depressing when we look at the numbers for children.

Two things have become common knowledge in the understanding of obesity. First is the obvious observation that physical activity is absolutely essential in the quest to reduce the amount of body fat stored. Fat will neither dissolve nor evaporate; it must be metabolized (burned). Naturally you have to burn more calories than you consume before you can lose fat.

Second is the fact that insulin production by the pancreas, in response to elevated blood sugar, is the major mechanism responsible for the storage of fat. In short, insulin is the “fat storage hormone”. To control insulin release means to control blood sugar levels. Controlling the ratio of carbohydrate to protein intake controls blood sugar levels. While blood sugar is elevated, fat cannot be metabolized, only stored.

Excess fat consumption along with calorie counting are the usual targets in the attempted nutritional approaches to excess weight. However, although calories count, and fat contains more than twice the calories per gram compared to carbohydrates, the counting of calories has never been that successful.

Fat along with protein, tend to control appetite and a 1996 study from the University of Alabama published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition demonstrated that “only 2% of weight gained by 349 subjects could be attributed solely to dietary fat”. Calorie counting may be futile in the pursuit of better health because it does not consider nutrient density.

Both of the above elements require attention to lifestyle if success is to be achieved. Children learn their lifestyle from parents and other authoritative institutions in their life. So if things are to change, the behavior of parents and governing institutions must change. This is where priorities come into play.

Studies have shown that overweight parents tend to produce overweight children. If one truly desires a healthy lifestyle for the child, they must set the example in the home. That would mean making regular exercise a priority. Exercise must become part of the accepted “normal” daily behavior.

Years ago, this did not require conscious planning because it was a part of life. Children walked to school and recreation was exercise-based (not electronic), often spontaneous and free. Today, for safety reasons and logistics of school locations, children are driven to school and recreation is organized and not free but increasing in cost.

If physical activity is to become a priority, it must be encouraged and be affordable, not just available to the elite who can afford it. Governments at all levels need to reassess the value of investing in more affordable and accessible physical activity oriented recreation.

Nutritional choices are the other major lifestyle element influenced by both parents and institutions. I have often used the phrase “we live in carbohydrate hell and it is creating insulin disasters”. Although we die with out insulin, chronically elevated levels create a framework for many health challenges. These challenges range from obesity, to increases in cholesterol, blood pressure and type II diabetes. Again, nutritional challenges are a modern problem brought on by a proliferation of low nutrient dense, high calorie convenience foods and snacks. It seems that the norm is every two hours to eat or drink something from a bag, bottle, box or can. Most of these items create the insulin disasters.

Many schools have taken steps to remove soda pop from their vending machines but they have merely replaced them with high carbohydrate sugar loaded fruit or fruit flavored drinks. They still contain too many simple sugar calories and carry only marginally more nutrients. Most public recreation facilities have not even made these changes. They often explain it all away with the excuse that the vending machines provide significant income to the institution and that helps to finance some of their programs.

Once again, if a healthy lifestyle were a priority, parents and institutions would take positive steps to ensuring the food choices were healthy and that healthy food choices were the norm.  I recently heard of schools adding healthy choices to their vending machines and making the price more attractive and increasing the prices of the less than healthy options. They should be applauded for their innovative efforts.

The issue of cost is often offered up as the reason why the “bag, box, bottle and can” approach is taken. It is alleged that healthy food is more expensive and difficult to maintain in families with limited budgets. However, it has been shown many times that healthy eating usually means eating less but the nutritional density is higher. A simple example is the difference between white bread and sprouted grain bread. White bread can cost less than $1.00 per loaf but it is easy to consume 2 – 4 slices in a single sitting whereas a single slice of the $3.75 per loaf for sprouted grain bread will satisfy the average appetite.

There is a serious need for a paradigm shift in leadership if childhood obesity is to be conquered. Priority must be given to those elements that make up our “lifestyle”. Make healthy living the norm, make it affordable and make it accessible for all income groups, not just the wealthy.