Q: How much of America’s childhood obesity epidemic is the fault of the Government’s bad nutrition advice and policies?
A: Governments are made up of individuals, doing their jobs, trying to do what they think is right. I don’t believe anybody in the FDA or Department of Agriculture (USDA) purposely wants to make people fat or sick. But some of the goofy information and policies they’ve pushed have less to do with improving health than with economics.
Take school lunches, for example. Obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. When the Government reduced the budget for the Federal School Lunch Program in the early 1980’s, the USDA, tasked with finding a way to stretch the dollars, proposed that condiments such as “pickle relish” could be credited as a vegetable. Condiments as vegetables for our kids? The proposal prompted public outcry, with Newsweek magazine illustrating its coverage with a bottle of ketchup captioned “now a vegetable.”
In 2011, the furor over “pizza as a vegetable” made headlines. The tomato paste on pizza is not only considered a vegetable by the USDA, but gets special bonus treatment so that only one eighth of a cup of tomato paste is credited as a half cup of vegetables. In passing a revised agriculture appropriations bill, Congress blocked efforts to remove the special credit, keeping it easy for pizza manufacturers to produce a product that includes a serving of “vegetables.”
The shenanigans continue. A bill that would end a tax subsidy for the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children was blocked in Congress. A spending bill for agriculture and food programs was introduced to allow schools with federally funded lunch programs to roll back compliance with 2012 nutritional guidelines – even though the school lunch requirement for fruits and vegetables is a meager half cup of one or the other. Although there’s a reported 90% compliance with the guidelines, some House lawmakers claim money is being wasted when some kids throw healthy foods into the trash. I’m sure it happens, but is the best way to deal with it to give up and let them eat junk?
In the shadows, impacting all the laws, regulations and politics, is the massive food and beverage industry. In 2010 alone, the industry reportedly spent over $40 billion to lobby Congress against efforts to decrease the marketing of unhealthy foods to kids or to tax soft drinks. The industry is about making money, which requires getting kids to eat the products. A 2008 Federal Trade Commission report to Congress found that the industry spends approximately $2 billion a year marketing to children (the fast food industry spends more than $5 million every day marketing unhealthy foods to kids).
This is big business, folks, and it’s nothing new. Dollars have long driven the nutritional policy train. The original U.S. “Food Pyramid,” introduced by the USDA in 1992, advised eating 6 – 11 daily servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta – more than the suggested amounts of fruits and vegetables combined – and recommended eating fats and oils only sparingly. This badly lopsided program surely contributed to expanding waistlines – and myriad health problems such as diabetes – as Americans gobbled up the empty calories in starchy, refined carbs and skimped on healthy fats and protein. Experienced trainers and nutrition gurus polled on my public Facebook page (@RickCollinsOnline) – recognized experts like Matt Weik, CSCS, CPT, CSN; Mike T. Nelson, PhD, Michelle Adams, MPH, CISSN; and Anna Lepeley, PhD, CSCS, CISSN – agree that the Food Pyramid[i] that many of us were raised on was great for grain and dairy farmers but a health disaster for America’s kids … and adults.
Profits drive America’s fat train, aided by politics. But before we lay all the blame on greedy corporations or broken Government, let’s not overlook the role of personal responsibility. Jean Gutierrez, PhD, RD, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch, points out that the top 3 sources of daily calories for kids are still, in order, grain-based desserts (like cookies and cupcakes), pizza, and sugary beverages.[ii] Regardless of Government advice or corporate lobbying, we as parents need to make smarter choices about what foods should be eaten by our kids, and ourselves.
Rick Collins, JD, CSCS [www.rickcollins.com] is the lawyer that members of the bodybuilding community and nutritional supplement industry turn to when they need legal help or representation. [© Rick Collins, 2014. Adapted from Rick’s column in Muscular Development magazine. All rights reserved. For informational purposes only, not to be construed as leg