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Does low-fat put your kids at high-risk for obesity?

Most Americans firmly believe that a low-fat diet is the best way to achieve and maintain a normal body weight. But a growing body of research indicates that far from being ideal, low-fat diets may actually be contributing to our nation’s obesity crisis.

Low-fat diets received a tacit stamp of approval in 1992 when the USDA introduced its “food pyramid.” According to the USDA guidelines, we were urged to use fats, oils and sweets “sparingly” (the top of the pyramid), and to build our diets around breads, cereals, rice and pastas (the base of the pyramid).

A central idea behind a low-fat dietary regimen is that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. In other words, 100 calories of French fries is equal to 100 calories of mixed greens. The trick to staying lean, then, is to keep calorie consumption low or energy expenditure high. That helps explain the explosive growth of calorie-counting diets, gyms and exercise products. But it doesn’t shed light on the fact that after decades of low-fat diets, American waistlines continue to grow.

The answer to that mystery might be found in new research that challenges the old “calories-in-calories-out” viewpoint. Over the past decade, study after study has confirmed that, in fact, all calories are not created equal. It appears that our bodies respond differently to calories from highly processed carbohydrates, like white flour and sugar. These foods cause spikes of blood sugar and insulin, which prompt the body to retain fat rather than burn it off.

So the unfortunate irony is that a diet built on a foundation of breads, cereals, rice and pastas—the base of the pyramid—may actually undermine attempts to maintain a healthy body weight. The USDA addressed this issue a year ago when it replaced its food pyramid with My Plate (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/). The new guidelines call for a diet that is 50% fruits and vegetables and only about 25% “whole grains.”

The latest research has also prompted a spike in the popularity of “Atkins”-style diets that promote zero or minimal carbs (including many fruits and vegetables) while allowing for liberal portions of fats and proteins. Some adherents of these diets report impressive weight loss on palate-pleasing meals of bacon, eggs and steak. While these diets can provide dramatic metabolic results in the short run, their long-term effects on health and mortality are questionable at best.

Again, the best diet is one that provides optimal health, not optimal weight or waist size. A good eating regimen is also realistic. Most people have a hard time sticking to a strict no-carb diet. And eliminating a bunch of fruits and vegetables because they contain carbs means missing out on a ready source of important vitamins and minerals.

The solution, as usual, calls for moderation and common sense. For starters, any diet regimen should eliminate as many highly processed carbohydrates and added sugars as possible. How can you identify highly processed foods? Some general rules of thumb are:

  • If it comes in a box, there’s probably a better alternative.
  • If the list of ingredients runs on for more than two or three lines, it’s most likely a highly processed food.
  • Added sugars are found in virtually all sodas, fruit drinks, candies, cakes, pies, etc.
  • Known aliases under with added sugars hide include sucrose, fructose, dextrose, corn syrup, maltose, nectar, brown sugar, cane juice and fruit juice concentrate.
  • If an ingredient contains the word “white,” (white flour, white rice, white pasta, etc.), either avoid it and try to find an alternative (whole-grain pasta, brown rice, soy flour, etc.)

Even modest dietary changes can make a substantial difference in your baseline weight and overall health. If you take it a step further by eliminating sugary drinks and replacing refined carbs with fruits, beans and nuts, you’re well on your way to optimal health for you and your family.

It’s not the fat, it’s the fitness.

On Monday night, HBO will premiere its four-part documentary, “The Weight of the Nation: Confronting America’s Obesity Epidemic.” While the film is very good, the conversation around it leaves something to be desired.

First the documentary: The United States is in the midst of one of the greatest public-health crises in its history. While this isn’t news, we can’t afford to stop talking about the problem or potential solutions.

One of the film’s strongest features is that it finally takes on the food industry, especially the way it targets children. One on-camera expert goes so far as to say that food marketing to kids is “powerful, it’s pernicious and it’s predatory.”

These are bold words, not in their content, but because you rarely hear such a direct indictment of our food industry. As a premium cable channel, HBO doesn’t have to worry about blowback from advertisers. To its credit, HBO uses that independence to take a hard look at one of the prime drivers behind our “obesity” epidemic.

Of course, the issue is more complex than a bunch of food executives in black hats. It’s not realistic to go after a single scapegoat or a simple cause for our nation’s “obesity” problem. In fact, it may not even be productive to call it an “obesity” epidemic.

Both the documentary and our national dialogue frame the issue in terms of our “weight” and “obesity” problem. While that may be an obvious place to start, “obesity” is really a byproduct of a series of larger problems.

You could argue that we have a cultural problem, with our kids now spending an average of 7.5 hours per day (yikes!!!!) absorbed in electronic media.

You could also say we have an economic problem, with manufactured food (anything in boxes or bags) priced at a fraction of the cost of the fruits and vegetables that should make up half of our daily diet.

Or you might say we have a biological problem, since we’re literally built to eat food if it’s in front of us and to favor immediate gratification over long-term gain.

The truth is that the “obesity” epidemic is a perfect storm of all of these issues. And by stigmatizing fat and fat individuals, we run the risk of seeing the problem through lard-covered glasses.

In fact, this exact viewpoint has already made the problem worse. As “60 Minutes” recently reported, America’s obsession with fat has led food manufacturers to find ways to take natural fats out of foods. But that also removes most of the flavor. So manufacturers have replaced fat with artificial sweeteners, which ironically have proven to make us even fatter than the original fat might have.

As the old margarine commercial used to say: “You can’t fool Mother Nature.” Humans are biologically designed to use our bodies as much as our minds. This balance is out of whack in the modern world, but the keys to a relative wellness are not out of reach:
- Sleep more and eat less.
- Move around every day (at least 10,000 steps or an hour of moderate activity).
- Drink mostly water.
- Try to make half of what you eat be actual fruits and vegetables.

If Americans, and especially our children, would adopt these elements in their daily lives, we could eradicate the epidemic in one generation. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

That’s why we don’t have an “obesity” epidemic so much as a “lifestyle” or “wellness” epidemic. And that’s why we shouldn’t focus on getting thinner, but on adopting healthier lifestyles.

We don’t want our kids to grow up obsessing about their weight or their waist lines (like we do). We want them to develop good habits, so it becomes second nature to grab a glass of water instead of a soda. These types of small changes over a lifetime can have a huge impact on the overall wellness of our kids’ entire generation.

Centuries ago, when food was scarce, cultures fetishized the overweight. Today, we’ve gone to the other extreme, holding up unrealistically thin models and actors as our physical ideals. Neither alternative is healthy. And not measuring up to unrealistic ideals just plain doesn’t feel good.

What does feel good is setting a simple goal—adding one piece of fruit a day to your diet—and then accomplishing it. It feels so good that it might lead to the addition of another simple goal (add an extra veggie a day) and then another (walk an extra 100 steps every day). Over time… well, you get the picture.

We’ve built up enough evidence over the past few decades to realize that trying to lose weight is not going to solve the problem. So maybe it’s time to stop focusing on the negative byproduct—obesity—and turn our attention to the proactive solution—healthy habits.

In that regard, those extra pounds might turn out to be like the pesky kid next door. By ignoring them and just doing what we should in our day-to-day lives, we might find that they just go away on their own.

Welcome to the new Commit 2B Fit website!

Welcome to our new website! After seven years, it was time to update our look. More importantly, we wanted to expand how we serve our students, teachers, school administrators and partners.

In the coming weeks and months, you can expect to see a number of features coming online. First up is a teacher’s guide with lesson plans and resources that correspond to the Commit 2B Fit academic planner. This feature will support teachers with instructional and activity components that  align with the weekly wellness themes introduced in the planner.

We’ll also be moving the entire Commit 2B Fit Parent Supplement online so parents/guardians of participating students can get a complete overview of the program. The supplement is also full of information on healthy food shopping and preparation, ideas for family fitness activities and tips to provide moral support for kids learning to set and achieve their wellness goals.

In addition, the Commit 2B Fit web site will be more interactive. In the seven years since introducing Commit 2B Fit in the classroom, more than 300,000 students have benefited from the program. During that time, social media exploded as an on-line phenomenon.

So it just makes sense that the Commit 2B site should be the hub of a conversation that includes not just past and current students, but tens of thousands of parents and hundreds of teachers.

Taken together, we represent a varied group of people. But we all share a concern with the skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and the health of our kids.

I encourage you to join the conversation and to contact us with your comments and ideas. Working together we can and will make a difference in our children’s future.