TCS Daily

California's Policies Are Based on True Lies

By John Luik - September 22, 2005 12:00 AM

It hasn't been the best of times for California's Arnold Schwarzenegger lately. So last week's Summit on Health, Nutrition and Obesity, finally provided the Terminator with a few minutes of celebrity filled photo-ops with the likes of Dr. Phil, SpongeBob SquarePants, Jared, and other deep thinkers about childhood obesity.

The Governor's "Summit" was designed to highlight two new bills just signed by Schwarzenegger, one that restricts the sugar and fat content of foods sold in schools and the second that bans the sale of soda pop in California schools. Meeting a group of kids on a summit walkabout, Schwarzenegger, ever the master of the elegant obesity-fighting phrase told them "Don't eat always the junk food, OK?"

A better thought from the Terminator might have been "Don't always buy into the junk science, Ok?," since just as his cherished summit got under way, a new study arrived which once again (See Kicking the Can, 7/8/05) suggests that it is not pop, but lack of exercise and family poverty that are driving up rates of childhood obesity. The study, from two researchers at the University of Alberta looked at the health, nutrition and lifestyle factors of 4,298 fifth grade school children in an effort to determine which risk factors were most important for overweight children.

Unlike so many studies that rely on estimates of height and weight -- estimates which always lead to an overestimate of both overweight and obesity -- the study actually took measurements of the kids' height and weight, as well as assessing their dietary habits including whether they ate breakfast, whether their lunch came from home or was purchased at school, whether they ate in fast food restaurants, whether there were regular family suppers, and whether supper was eaten in front of the television.

The results are startling, for they disprove so much of the contemporary "wisdom" that appears to be driving America toward a series of completely ineffective obesity policies. First, eating in a fast food restaurant -- which to hear the Fat Police talk, is the major source of childhood obesity -- was not statistically significant as a risk factor for obesity, even in children who eat in such restaurants more than three times a week.

Second, the study found that there was not a statistically significant difference between the quantity of soft drinks consumed by children attending schools that did not sell soft drinks and those that did. Children in schools that sold soft drinks consumed an average of 4.0 cans of pop per week, while children at schools which did not sell soft drinks consumed 3.6 cans per week. This works out, according to the authors, to 33.5 and 32.5 grams of sucrose per day. The extra gram would mean an additional four calories for the kids where pop was sold -- a completely insignificant amount in terms of total daily caloric intake.

Third, there was not a statistically significant association between the availability of soft drinks at school or schools with food vending machines and the risk of children being overweight or obese. As the authors noted:

        "We observed that children attending schools that sell soft drinks consumed 
        somewhat more soft drinks and sugar, but the amounts were likely insufficient 
        to bring about differences in body weight."

Fourth, the study, like so many others, found that the really striking association between overweight and obese children was with their physical activity levels in general and the frequency of physical education classes at their schools in particular. "Children attending schools with more frequent physical education classes ", they write, "were increasingly more likely to have normal body weight." And for physical activity in general, they note that "frequency of physical activity appears to be the only activity-related factor independently associated with overweight." Of course, several speakers at the Schwarzenegger summit, according to the Los Angeles Times, also noted this connection, along with the fact that the Governor's bills did nothing to address this.

So, contrary to the Terminator and First Lady Maria Shriver, who apparently was the real mover behind the summit, the research evidence about children's obesity completely contradicts not only California's soda pop ban but the wider attack on fast food. Indeed, it points obesity-fighting policies in a completely different direction. Children who eat more frequently at fast food restaurants are NOT more likely to be obese. Children at schools serving pop do NOT consume significantly more pop or sucrose per day. Children who attend schools serving soft drinks or with food vending machines are NOT at greater risk for being overweight. And children who go to schools with frequent PE classes are MORE likely to have normal body weights.

But don't hold your breath waiting for a change in school-based obesity policies, for whatever the evidence suggests, the folks like the Terminator and the experts at the Centers for Disease Control claim to know best. Commenting on Schwarzenegger's pop ban, William Dietz, head of the division of nutrition and physical activity at the CDC noted that while the "evidence that control of soft-drink intake is effective against obesity is pretty limited", it is nonetheless "logical". Really? So were explanations as to why the world had to be flat. Perhaps Dietz might get some of the CDC folks to explain why policymakers ought to act on "logic" as opposed to real world scientific studies. Or, better yet, perhaps Dr. Dietz ought to re-read his 2002 testimony to Congress on the critical importance of getting obesity strategies right, where he said that

        "Physical activity represents our most effective strategy for obesity and 
        the one for which the most substantial body of evidence exists."

That's something that ex-bodybuilder Schwarzenegger should understand.

John Luik is writing a book about health care policy.


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