I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 21, 2010

Nature: an antidote for what ails us?

Sites for children to learn more about nature

In a post from last spring, I discussed what some people have called “Nature Deficit Disorder” and how that could be another factor contributing to increased obesity rates, a decline in mental well-being, decreased happiness, and other problems.  Here are some resources that could help counter that.

Discover the Foresthttp://www.discovertheforest.org/

A USDA Forest Service website, sponsored in part by Dreamworks (if you’ve seen the public service announcement, you know that Shrek is part of this campaign) and The North Face.

Includes information on:

  • Where to Go – Find Forests and Parks (based on the National Wildlife Federation’s NatureFind app – see below)
  • What to Do – Forest Snapshot game, animal sounds, animal tracks, tree leaves, how to use a compass, how to become a Junior Forest Ranger.

Note about the Forest Snapshot Game: Kids have an opportunity to upload photos of their own.  This may not be widely known, but GPS-enabled cameras and smartphones can embed locational data in photos.  If they or you are posting such pictures on the Web, you are letting EVERYONE know where you live.  There are supposed to be ways to disable that feature, so if you’re concerned about that you might want to consider turning disabling that before you basically upload information about where you live to the Web.  (For more information on potential problems resulting from posting locational information, see the Please Rob Me website.)

That said, this is a neat idea.  (Note: The game took a minute or two to load on my PC.)

Provides links to resources, information on getting kids outdoors more (and maybe yourself, too!)

  • The Why page links to nature websites and tips on how to enjoy nature without ruining it.

Children and Nature Initiative

One of the Discover the Forest campaign’s recommended sites is the National Environmental Education Foundation’s Children and Nature Initiativehttp://neefusa.org/health/children_nature.htm

NEEF’s Children and Nature Initiative, launched in May 2010, addresses two important issues—preventing serious health conditions like obesity and diabetes and reconnecting children to nature. Research indicates that unstructured outdoor activities may improve children’s health by increasing physical activity, reducing stress, and serving as a support mechanism for attention disorders. The Children and Nature Initiative educates pediatric health care providers about prescribing outdoor activities to children. The program also connects health care providers with local nature sites, so that they can refer families to safe and easily accessible outdoor areas.

A fact sheet on Children’s Health and Nature describes benefits of children’s exposure to the natural environment and includes recommendations from the CDC, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association and American College of Sports Medicine.

Problems that may be caused by (or at least exacerbated by) a lack of outdoor activity

  • Childhood obesity
  • Attention disorders
  • Vitamin D deficiency

The fact sheet includes summaries of research showing connections between nature and health.

Unstructured outdoor play time is important for children’s overall well-being. How does nature play a role in children’s health? The fact sheet describes highlights from the published literature on the health benefits of the natural environment.  Free play is important.

Resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

CDC’s National Trail Days website – http://www.cdc.gov/Features/ParksAndTrails/
Physical activity guidelines for children and adolescentshttp://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/physicalactivity/guidelines.htm

  • Includes a Youth Physical Activity Guidelines Toolkit available for downloading

Tread Lightly

Tread Lightly on Land and Water – http://www.treadlightly.org/ – is a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote responsible outdoor recreation through ethics education and stewardship.  Learn simple ways to minimize your impact on the environment when engaging in outdoor activities.

Tread Lightly’s Tips for Responsible Recreationhttp://www.treadlightly.org/page.php/education-recreationtips/Recreation-Tips.html

Children and Nature Networkhttp://www.childrenandnature.org/

Described in an article in the Kiwi magazine blog, The Whole Child: Prescription for Playhttp://kiwimagonline.com/kiwilog/the-whole-child/the-whole-child-prescription-for-play
C&NN Bloghttp://www.childrenandnature.org/blog/
Nature Clubs for Families Toolkithttp://www.childrenandnature.org/downloads/NCFF_toolkit.pdf

HEALTH BENEFITS TO CHILDREN FROM CONTACT WITH THE OUTDOORS & NATURE

http://www.childrenandnature.org/downloads/C&NNHealthBenefits.pdf
Includes literature reviews  and overview documents as well as summaries of articles describing benefits of children’s contact with the outdoors on children’s mental and physical health.

This document notes:

There is a strong body of evidence attributing improved health with physical activity. In addition, there is evidence suggesting that nature specifically can improve attention and other psychological aspects of health. Playing in nature can positively impact children’s health and well-being.

National Wildlife Federation’s “Green Hour” Campaign

http://www.nwf.org/Get-Outside/Be-Out-There/Why-Be-Out-There/What-is-a-Green-Hour.aspx

NWF NatureFindhttp://www.nwf.org/naturefind/ – Lets you search for activities from a wide variety of sites.  Most are outdoor, but they also include events at sites like museums, botanical gardens, and nature centers.

May 23, 2010

Food safety, marketing, and reducing childhood obesity

White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report

This report was released earlier this month. It discusses issues and offers recommendations relating to childhood obesity, including the usual regarding diet and lack of physical activity, but also notes the role that “obesogens” (endocrine disruptors and other chemicals thought to increase obesity by interfering with the body’s metabolic processes), food marketing, product formulation, access to healthier food, etc., play a part in the obesity epidemic.

Report: Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation

http://www.letsmove.gov/taskforce_childhoodobesityrpt.html

Full reporthttp://www.letsmove.gov/tfco_table_of_contents.pdf (chapters also available as individual PDFs)

Contents
  • Early Childhood – A. Prenatal Care; B. Breastfeeding; C. Chemical Exposures; D. Screen Time; and E. Early Care and Education
  • Empowering parents and caregivers – A. Making Nutrition Information Useful; B. Food Marketing; and C. Health Care Services
  • Healthy Food in Schools – A. Quality School Meals; B. Other Foods in Schools; C. Food-Related Factors in the School Environment; and D. Food in Other Institutions
  • Access to Healthy, Affordable Food – A. Physical Access to Healthy Food; B. Food Pricing; C. Product Formulation; D. Hunger and Obesity
  • Increasing Physical Activity – A. School-Based Approaches; B. Expanded Day and Afterschool Activities; C. The “Built Environment”; and D. Community Recreation Venues

The role of marketing

The report notes:

Food marketing to children and adolescents is a big business. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that, in 2006, food, beverage, and quick-serve restaurant companies spent more than $1.6 billion to promote their products to young people. Children and adolescents are an important demographic for marketers for several reasons: (1) they are customers themselves; (2) they influence purchases made by parents and caregivers; and (3) they are the future adult market.

The report says that the relationship between marketing and obesity isn’t firmly established, but that advertising does appear to have an effect on kids. Give me a break. Why would companies spend that kind of money if they weren’t getting the results they wanted?

Many books have been written about the ways in which companies try to market products to kids. A couple of note are Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet Schor and Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn. Both books cover food marketing in a good amount of detail (and are well-documented).

One of the things that caught my attention in Born to Buy was Schor’s discussion of how marketing companies want to create a world in which consumers are constantly bombarded by 360-degree advertising (or what one agency refers to as “infinite consumer touchpoint possibilities”).

What are the effects of such marketing? Probably not just obesity. Overstimulation. Psychological effects. Increased materialism. And what are the eventual consequences? In an article, “Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability,” the authors (Tim Kasser, Tom Crompton, and Susan Linn) argue that “the same generation of children that is being encouraged to prioritize wealth, consumption, and possessions is the same generation that, if current trends continue, will need to drastically reduce its consumption patterns so as to prevent further global climate disruption, habitat loss, and species extinction.”

Food safety issues

The USDA Office of Inspector General issued a report in March 2010 (Audit Report 24601-08-KC) noting that:

One of the public food safety issues facing the United States is the contamination of meat with residual veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals. “Residue” of this sort finds its way into the food supply when producers bring animals to slaughter plants while they have these residual contaminants in their system. When the animals are slaughtered, traces of the drugs or pesticides contained in these animals’ meat is shipped to meat processors and retail supermarkets, and eventually purchased by consumers. In order to safeguard the Nation’s food supply from harmful residue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) administers the national residue program.

The Inspector General found that “the national residue program is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for harmful residues. Together, FSIS, FDA, and EPA have not established thresholds for many dangerous substances (e.g., copper or dioxin), which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce. Additionally, FSIS does not attempt to recall meat, even when its tests have confirmed the excessive presence of veterinary drugs.”

So the food we eat might actually be a source of obesity in more than one way.  Does this bother anyone else?

April 28, 2010

Health Affairs special issue on child obesity (March 2010)

Health Affairs special issue on child obesity

http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/vol29/issue3/

Includes articles on obesity trends, prevention, connections with food and agriculture policy, effect of schools, lessons learned from states and localities, and more.

Note: Unfortunately it looks like you will have to pay to read the articles, but access to the abstracts (and the policy briefs listed below) is free.

From the Health Affairs blog

Child Obesity: Health Affairs Explores Strategies For Combating Epidemic

March 28, 2010

Environmental exposures and child development

Came across several articles in Current Opinion in Pediatrics because of a blog post on Autism and environmental chemicals: a call for caution. Unfortunately, only the abstracts are free to view.

But what these show is that medical science is beginning to look more closely at possible environmental causes of childhood diseases.  This  does not mean that environmental factors in and of themselves cause disease, but as Dr. Philip Landrigan notes, genetic factors account for only a small fraction of autism cases and do not explain key features of autism.

What causes autism? Exploring the environmental contribution

Landrigan, Philip J.  Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 22(2):219-225, April 2010. doi: 10.1097/MOP.0b013e328336eb9a

Excerpts from the abstract:

Autism is a biologically based disorder of brain development. Genetic factors – mutations, deletions, and copy number variants – are clearly implicated in causation of autism. However, they account for only a small fraction of cases, and do not easily explain key clinical and epidemiological features. This suggests that early environmental exposures also contribute. This review explores this hypothesis.

Expanded research is needed into environmental causation of autism. Children today are surrounded by thousands of synthetic chemicals. Two hundred of them are neurotoxic in adult humans, and 1000 more in laboratory models. Yet fewer than 20% of high-volume chemicals have been tested for neurodevelopmental toxicity.

Environmental exposures and development

Mattison, Donald R. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 22(2):208-218, April 2010. doi: 10.1097/MOP.0b013e32833779bf

Excerpts from the abstract:

Summarizes recent studies exploring the relationship between paternal and maternal environmental exposures to chemicals before, at the time of and after conception to adverse developmental outcomes including preterm birth, death, structural and functional abnormalities and growth restriction.

Recent studies have demonstrated that human pregnancy and development are vulnerable to environmental exposures of the father and mother to chemical, biological and physical agents.

Whereas single genes and individual chemical exposures are responsible for some instances of adverse pregnancy outcome or developmental disease, gene-environment interactions are responsible for the majority.

Gene-environment interaction and children’s health and development

Wright, Robert O; Christiani, David. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 22(2):197-201, April 2010. doi: 10.1097/MOP.0b013e328336ebf9

Excerpt from the abstract:

Purpose of review: A systematic approach to studying gene-environment interaction can have immediate impact on our understanding of how environmental factors induce developmental disease and toxicity and will provide biological insight for potential treatment and prevention measures.

Summary: Using a genome-wide approach, combined with prospective longitudinal measures of environmental exposure at critical developmental windows, is the optimal design for gene–environment interaction research. This approach would discover susceptibility variants, and then validate the findings in an independent sample of children. Designs that combine the strengths and methodologies of each field will yield data that can account for both genetic variability and the role of critical developmental windows in the etiology of childhood disease and development.

Childhood obesity and the built environment

Galvez, Maida P; Pearl, Meghan; Yen, Irene H. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 22(2):202-207, April 2010. doi: 10.1097/MOP.0b013e328336eb6f

March 21, 2010

U.S. Task Force on Childhood Obesity looking for ideas

We’ll see whether this has any impact, given some of the recent discoveries about the role of fructose in the obesity epidemic.

Task Force asks public for ideas on how to solve the obesity challenge (March 17, 2010, press release)

Federal Register request for input, March 16, 2010:

[Text version] [PDF version]

On Feb. 9, 2010, President Obama created the first-ever federal task force to enhance coordination between private sector companies, not-for-profits, agencies within the government and other organizations to address the problem of childhood obesity. The Presidential Memo that established the Task Force directed senior officials from executive agencies and the White House to develop a comprehensive interagency action plan that details a coordinated strategy, identifies key benchmarks and goals, describes research gaps and needs, and assists in the development of legislative, budgetary, and policy proposals that can improve the health and well-being of children, their families, and communities.

Now, Dr. Robert Lustig spoke about the basic problem with FDA and USDA on this issue in a lecture (see “The toxic effects of … sugar“).  He said that the biggest problem is not lack of exercise, but ingesting too much fructose.  (If lack of exercise is the reason, explain why there’s an epidemic of obese six-month-olds.)

Lustig says that the studies linking fat consumption and heart disease did not control for sugar consumption.  He pointed out that in Western societies high-fat diets are high-sugar diets.   And he said that FDA won’t regulate fructose because it’s not an acute toxin, but a chronic toxin leading to metabolic syndrome (plus, the FDA considers it “natural”—which Dr. Lustig notes is true only on the technicality that HFCS is made from a natural product—HFCS is highly processed and refined).  And the USDA, which controls the food pyramid, won’t touch high fructose corn syrup because it’s made from corn.  (See also “Junk food turns rats into addicts. Bacon, cheesecake, Ho Hos alter brain’s pleasures centers.”)

The Federal Register notice points people to First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative – http://www.letsmove.gov/.  I certainly support this, but I think they need to go further and start looking at the connection between fructose and obesity.  The site has links to all sorts of useful information, including a link to the Food Environment Atlas from USDA which shows consumption of various foods around the U.S., as well as maps showing diabetes and obesity rates (under “Health”).

While there’s no acknowledgement that the type of sugar we’re consuming has an effect, I did notice that there are signs that someone in the government is paying attention.  Water is recommended as the main drink.  Fruit juices are discouraged, as are “added sugars.”  But they don’t appear to have made the leap yet to the connection between fructose and the metabolic syndrome, which appears to be even more important than the number of calories consumed or burned.

Related posts:

Update on fructose – Dr. Lustig on Nightline” and “Fructose overdose

See also:

Laura Sanders.  “Junk food turns rats into addicts. Bacon, cheesecake, Ho Hos alter brain’s pleasures centers.” Science News.  November 21, 2009.

Paul Johnson and Paul Kenny. “Society of Neuroscience Program.”  ‘Neuroscience 2009′ Conference. October 17-21, 2009.  Chicago.

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