September 2011





Lancet Obesity Series Features Articles from NCCOR's Modeling Teams

The Lancet Obesity Series, released August 26, features four papers and related commentaries from NCCOR’s Collaborative Obesity Modeling Network(COMNet) modeling teams. COMNet includes teams from both academia and government in the US, UK, Australia, and Canada. The following link lists the teams and their members:

The Obesity Series was announced at a press conference at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The papers describe the reasons behind the pandemic, the economic and health burdens of the disease, and the changes needed to the obesogenic environment to stem the tide of obesity for future generations.

The series received extensive international news coverage in the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia with over 630 stories published to date. These stories were printed in some of the most prestigious news outlets in the US and the UK such as the New York Times, the BBC, The Guardian, and the Washington Post.

The headlines for these stories generally highlighted rising global obesity rates (e.g. half of adults in the UK and the US will be obese by 2030), the increased need for immediate government intervention to stem the tide of global obesity, and obesity prevention efforts governments could take to decrease obesity rates (e.g. taxing sugar-sweetened beverages).

To see additional coverage of the Lancet Obesity Series on major broadcast networks click on the videos below:

Work on the Obesity Series was supported in part by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health, NIDDK, and grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research of the National Institutes for Health.

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Publications & Tools

Interactive Diet and Activity Tracking in AARP (iDATA): Biomarker Based Validation Study (NCI)

On Aug. 25, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved data collection for the iDATA Study. The study will compare objectively measured energy expenditure, protein, nutrients, and physical activity with the self-reported intakes of energy, protein, nutrients, and physical activity using the newly developed internet-based diet and physical activity assessment tools, ASA24 and ACT24, as well as conventional self-report instruments for assessing diet and physical activity.

The specific objectives of the iDATA Study are:

  1. To evaluate the measurement error in self-reported dietary assessment instruments, including the ASA24, against objectively measured intakes of energy, protein, and other nutrients.
  2. To investigate the measurement error in self-reported physical activity instruments, including ACT24, against objectively measured energy expenditure and motion.
  3. To evaluate analytic approaches for combining different types of self-reported data on diet and physical activity as well as combining self-reported and objective data.
  4. To evaluate the potential for ‘energy adjustment’ of diet and disease associations that incorporates physical activity and body size.


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Parks and Recreation Programs Can Help Reduce Childhood Obesity

A new policy brief by Active Living Research, a major program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, highlights parks and recreation programs that can help to reduce childhood obesity. The brief summarizes new research that suggests increasing proximity to parks and recreational programs is part of the solution to reducing childhood obesity in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the United States. Findings cited state that these types of parks and recreations programs significantly reduce the risk of children being overweight or obese. It’s estimated that if all children in the study had matching recreational programs near their homes, up to 9.5 percent would have their weight decrease from overweight to normal and approximately 2 percent would have their weight decrease from obese to overweight.


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Strategies to Close the Food Access Gap

A new report by PolicyLink takes a closer look at the impact of the access to healthy food gap in underserved areas, particularly in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The report, Healthy Food, Healthy Communities: Promising Strategies to Improve Access to Fresh, Healthy Food and Transform Communities, highlights ongoing strategies to develop new grocery stores, and help existing grocers, farmers’ markets, bodegas, corner stores, and other local food retailers expand their healthy food choices.


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Childhood Obesity Research & News

For Better Grades, Try Gym Class

Aug. 10, 2011, New York Times "Well"

By Gretchen Reynolds

If you want a young person to focus intently in school and perform well on tests, should you first send him or her to gym class? That question, which has particular relevance for school districts weighing whether to reduce or ax their physical education programs to save money, motivated a number of stimulating new examinations into the interplay of activity and attention. Some of the experiments studied children; others looked at laboratory rats bred to have an animal version of attention deficit disorder. For both groups, exercise significantly affected their ability to concentrate, although some activities seemed to be better than others at sharpening attention.

The most striking of the new studies involved 138 schoolchildren ages 8 to 11 who were living in Rome. The children were physically healthy, and none suffered from serious attention deficits. But like most children that age, they found it difficult to remain fully engaged in their lessons as the school day wore on. As the study’s authors, all affiliated with the Foro Italico campus of the University of Rome, point out, children “who undergo prolonged periods of academic instruction often reduce their attention and concentration.”

To determine whether exertion could make students less distracted, the researchers, whose study was published last week in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, had the children complete several types of gym classes, as well as a typical instructional or lecture class. Just before and immediately after the classes, the children took a written test that required them to pick out certain letters from long chains of symbols in a short time. The test is widely accepted as a good indicator of a person’s attention and ability to concentrate.

The children’s test scores rose after each of the classes. But by a wide margin, their scores increased the most after a 50-minute gym class that concentrated on endurance exercise. In that session, the young students ran, walked, skipped and otherwise kept moving for the duration of the class. Afterward, according to their test scores, they were much better able to focus.

Interestingly, the children did not improve as much after a 50-minute gym class that required them to learn new drills with a ball. That session, which was “geared toward the development of both motor control and perceptual-motor adaptation abilities,” required more thought than the endurance class, the researchers wrote. Afterward, their scores on attention tests rose, but not by as much. The researchers speculated that asking the students to both think and move was too much, inducing “an excessive stress load” on their brains.

These findings resonate intriguingly with those of other newly published experiments involving lab rats bred to have the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These rats are twitchier and even less capable of settling down than typical rodents. They also can’t seem to stop investigating meaningless stimuli. When researchers shine a light into these rats’ cages, the animals keep going to the glow, long after they should have learned that the light was unimportant.

But researchers at the department of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth University found that giving adolescent rats access to a running wheel for three weeks before starting to shine the light in their cages significantly altered how the young animals responded. The exercised rats noticed the light, investigated it a few times and then moved on. Running had enabled the attention-deprived rats to better focus on what was meaningful — or not — in their cages.

The full effect of exercise on attention, though, remains tangled. During a separate part of the experiment that presented the A.D.H.D.-afflicted rats with a learning challenge, the animals that had exercised were no better than sedentary rodents at figuring out that a different light cue meant food. Exercise did not seem to boost their intellect, just as the Italian schoolchildren didn’t focus as well if their gym class added mental tasks to the physical exertion. “There is still a great deal that we need to learn about which parts of the brain preferentially are affected by exercise” in animals or people with attention deficits, said Andrea Robinson, a doctoral student at Dartmouth who conducted the rat experiments.

Still, she continued, the current findings are encouraging. “The implication is that exercise might in fact help to treat” young people with A.D.H.D. and, more broadly, enable all children to better absorb lessons in geometry or geology. “If I had to extrapolate” to children from her group’s findings in rats, Ms. Robinson said, the lesson would be, “let kids run around” during the school day and don’t require them constantly either to sit or to think. Or, to be more blunt, it may be time to start looking at gym classes not as lost academic hours but as a means to scholastic enrichment.


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Cutting Short Lunch Time in School May Lead to Obesity

Aug. 17, 2011, USA TODAY

By Nanci Hellmich

School districts across the country are revamping their menus to serve healthier fare, but most schools give students so little time to eat that they could be contributing unwittingly to the childhood obesity problem. Healthy food can take longer to eat, and research shows that wolfing down a meal in a hurry often means people eat more.

A new national survey by the School Nutrition Association shows elementary kids have about 25 minutes for lunch; middle school and high school students about 30 minutes. That includes the time students need to go to the restroom, wash their hands, walk to the cafeteria and stand in line for their meals.

Many students may have only about 10 to 15 minutes left to eat their meals, school nutrition directors say. But students should have at least 20 minutes to eat their lunch, the government recommends.

“It’s a problem in a lot of districts. There’s not a lot of time to get their food, sit down and eat their fill,” says Helen Phillips, president of the School Nutrition Association, and senior director of school nutrition for Norfolk (Va.) Public Schools.

Many students feel rushed, says Deborah Taylor, director of the Shawnee (Okla.) School Nutrition Services.

The typical length of the lunch has been about the same since 2009, but it’s shorter than in 2003 when kids got up to five more minutes. Children in some countries, such as France, get as long as one to two hours to eat lunch.

U.S. research shows that when people eat quickly, they consume more calories, enjoy the meal less and feel hungrier an hour later.

This lunch-period dilemma comes at a time when about a third of children and adolescents — 25 million kids — are obese or overweight, government statistics show.

Almost 32 million kids eat the school lunch every day, and more than 11 million eat the breakfast served there. Overall, kids consume about 30 percent to 50 percent of their calories in the school meal programs.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new nutrition standards for all food served in schools, from lunchrooms to vending machines.

Those standards are being developed now, but in the meantime, the school food service directors have already made lots of improvements, Phillips says. The new survey of 1,294 school nutrition directors from the School Nutrition Association found that most schools are offering fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, salad bars or entree salads, and fat-free and 1 percent milk.

But those kinds of foods often take more time to eat, Phillips says. “It takes more time to chew a whole apple than applesauce. Eating an entree salad takes longer than eating a cheeseburger or chicken nuggets, because of the crunching and chewing of the raw vegetables.”

Sometimes kids eat their favorite foods first, and if they run out of time, those vegetables may land in the trash, she says.

Children who bring their lunch would typically have a little more time to eat because they don’t have to stand in line to get their meal, she says. Whether or not it’s enough time depends on the child and the length of the period. “The younger elementary kids tend to eat slowly.”

The pressure of all the different academic demands affects the lunch schedules, Phillips says, so food service directors work with principals to make sure lunch hours are staggered so everyone is served quickly.

Many factors come into play when determining lunch periods, including building size, the number of serving lines, the seating in the cafeteria and the number of students coming to the cafeteria at any given time, she says.

Taylor adds: “I don’t know if there is a perfect answer. Every building is different, every principal is different.”

When people look back on the childhood obesity epidemic in this country and wonder how it spiraled out of control, they may blame the way kids were rushed to eat too fast, not just at school but at home, Taylor says.

“I think we have diminished the joy of sitting down and enjoying a meal. Now, the attitude is we should sit down and eat and get it over with.”


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Soda Out as Pinellas School District Takes Over Vending Machine Operation

Aug. 21, 2011, St. Petersburg Times

By Sylvia Lim

Starting this fall, Pinellas County high school students will find new vending machines on campus.

Out: soft drinks and sugary beverages.

In: fruit juices and flavored water.

“It bothered me that at high schools, you have carbonated beverages for sale as they walk off the bus,” said Art Dunham, the district’s food services director. “They (students) drink six to eight Cokes a day, and you wonder why we are having an obesity problem.”

The time is ripe for change, district officials said. For starters, new Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said he would like to shut down or restrict vending machines in schools if he can. Also, federal lawmakers last year passed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act that calls for healthier options in school vending machines.

So, when the district’s contract with Pepsi ended this school year, Dunham saw an opportunity.

In May, Pinellas School Board members approved spending $565,000 on 140 new vending machines. Dunham also worked out a business plan, which includes hiring four to six people to fill the new machines and a new vehicle to distribute the goods.

The food services department is independently funded by the federal government and lunch payments, Dunham said. A portion of a community grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — about $1.3 million — also will be used to pay for marketing the drinks to students, said Peggy Johns, the district’s prekindergarten to 12th-grade health education supervisor.

Students will pay $1 or less for the drinks, Dunham said. Whether the new plan will bring in as much money to schools is another matter.

Traditionally, beverage corporations such as Pepsi often pay high schools an access fee for housing their vending machines and a fraction for every case of beverages sold. Schools receive $35,000 to $50,000 from this, and principals can spend the cash on supplies, electronic equipment, student recognition programs and more.

The money is helpful when public schools’ funding is being slashed. “I’ve been watching the budget,” said Walt Weller, Seminole High principal. “I reserve it as much as I could knowing I could go into lean years.”

Under Dunham’s plan, schools will get to keep the proceeds of the sales. He’s relying on volume to make the program profitable, though that may take a little time.

“In high schools, there are 2,000 kids in each and there are 16 high schools, so there are 36,000 kids,” Dunham said. “By the end of next school year, we will break even.”

But some principals noted that changing out the beverage option doesn’t necessarily produce healthy students. Students will still drink what they want after school or bring their own beverages to school, Weller said.

“I agree we should give them choices, but we need to educate, educate, educate,” he said.


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