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Doctor Offers New Tools In Fight Against Childhood Obesity

A Big, Fat Problem

Grace E. Merritt

June 23, 2010

The bad news: childhood obesity has become so severe that some children are increasingly contracting illnesses normally seen in middle age.

The good news: the trend seems to be slowing and there are some interesting new strategies that families and schools can use to reverse the trend, such as an easy new way to quickly figure out the nutrition value of groceries at the store.

That was the message that David L. Katz, an expert in chronic disease prevention, delivered to about 160 YMCA, school and community leaders at a childhood obesity conference Wednesday.

Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, said that 20 percent of all children nationwide are obese, although he believes that the number is much higher. Obesity-related diseases once mostly limited to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, are showing up in greater frequency in children, he said.

Katz fears that heart disease lurks in the future, noting that a 17-year-old Missouri boy recently underwent triple coronary bypass surgery.

"There is a clear and present danger. We must do whatever we can to put a stop to it," Katz said.

There are plenty of steps that parents, schools and communities can take to help reverse the trend, he said. Rather than looking for a single solution, such as removing soda from school vending machines, communities should take lots of little steps to improve nutrition and encourage exercise, he said.

Katz noted that many families are confounded when it comes to determining which groceries are the most nutritious. To illustrate his point, he asked the audience which of two products had more sugar in it: pasta sauce or fudge sauce. The answer was pasta sauce, which had 12 grams of sugar, compared with 11 grams for the fudge sauce.

In another example, he said that low-fat peanut butter is actually less nutritious than regular peanut butter because it has less of the "good" oils in it and more sugar and salt to compensate, he said.

To help consumers navigate the nutritional minefield, Katz devised a nutrition scoring system. The system, called NuVal, rates each food on a scale of 1 to 100, and assigns each food a number. The higher the number, the higher the nutritional value. The number is then posted on the supermarket shelf under each food item near the price. NuVal is now being used in Price Chopper supermarkets in Connecticut and is expected to expand to another supermarket chain soon.

Katz also discussed free computer programs he developed to help teach students about nutrition and teachers to incorporate more exercise into their lesson plans. The "Nutrition Detectives" program gives children "clues" to good nutrition by teaching them how to read food labels and detect deceptive marketing.

Another program, called ABC for Fitness, is designed to help teachers program more time for physical activity into the classroom. The program shows teachers how to lead the class in "short bursts of activity" or exercise spread throughout the school day to promote health and fitness and keep students focused.

In a pilot study, the ABC for Fitness program worked so effectively that it even reduced the need for medication among some children. Medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder decreased by 33 percent and asthma medication dropped by 17 percent during a yearlong period. Both ABC for Fitness and Nutrition Detectives are available at http://www.davidkatzmd.com/abcforfitness.aspx.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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