New guidelines on treating childhood obesity from the American Academy of Pediatrics call for early and aggressive treatment—including weight loss drugs for children as young as 6 and bariatric surgery for youths as young as 13—instead of what they call “watchful waiting or unnecessary delay of appropriate treatment of children.”
The guidelines immediately stirred controversy, with critics on the left concerned about unequal access to treatment and conservative commentators suggesting that the guidelines offer an easy out for poor lifestyle choices. Critics from across the spectrum have noted the potential long-term consequences of putting children on drugs and performing irreversible surgery on teenagers.
“Lifestyle choices” typically mean more exercise—along with less processed food and more fruits and vegetables in the diet—but no one in the mainstream is suggesting that the solution is to allow children to eat more natural saturated fat.
Years ago, my co-author and colleague Mary Enig, who held a doctorate in nutritional sciences, had an interesting conversation with an official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency had researched the best way to fatten pigs—research that was never published. When they fed pigs whole milk or coconut oil, the pigs stayed lean—they found that the best way to fatten pigs was to feed them skim milk.
The department’s dietary guidelines stipulate reduced fat milk for all Americans above the age of 2. Could this policy—initiated in the 1990s—explain the increase in obesity among American children? A couple of studies indicate that this could be the case.
The first, published in 2006 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at diet and metabolic markers in 4-year-old children in Sweden. “High body mass index was associated with a low percentage of energy from fat,” and greater weight was related to greater insulin resistance, especially in girls. In other words, children on low-fat diets tended to be overweight and had markers that presage diabetes later in life.
The second study, published in 2013 in the Archives of Diseases of Children, looked specifically at children consuming reduced-fat milk, comparing the body mass index of those drinking 1 percent skim milk and 2 percent “whole milk” drinkers. (I put “whole milk” in quotation marks because commercial whole milk contains 3.5 percent fat, and whole milk obtained from the farm can contain up to 5 percent fat.)
Across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic status subgroups, those drinking 1 percent skim milk “had an increased adjusted odds of being overweight … or obese … In longitudinal analysis, children drinking 1 percent skim milk at both 2 and 4 years were more likely to become overweight/obese between these time points.” In other words, children on skim milk are more likely to become fat—just like pigs do!
Now let’s look at the kind of milk that children get in public schools. They’re offered 1 percent skim milk or chocolate milk—guess which one they prefer? The chocolate milk is set on their trays, which they can then consume or refuse—guess which behavior is likely to occur? Let’s look at the ingredients in the chocolate milk given to our children in the belief that this will keep them slim:
“Nonfat milk, sugar, contains less than 1 percent of: cocoa (processed with alkali), cornstarch, salt, carrageenan, natural and artificial flavor, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D3.”
The first ingredient is nonfat milk—not even 1 percent milk—and the second ingredient is sugar—approximately 14 grams of added sugar in a serving of 8 1/2 ounces, or about 1 tablespoon.
Thus, the science indicates that giving kids nonfat milk, especially combined with sugar, is a recipe for making kids fat and setting them up for diabetes later in life. But there’s more—listed in the minor ingredients is “artificial flavor,” a term often used for hidden MSG.
The food industry and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration insist that there is nothing wrong with MSG (monosodium glutamate), however, if you search “MSG-induced obesity” in PubMed, you will come up with almost 100 citations. It’s hard to get research animals to overeat and become obese—in order to study obesity—so scientists feed the rats, mice, and hamsters MSG to make them eat more and put on weight.
Most of the citations are animal studies, not human trials, and the food industry has argued that the amount of MSG given to the animals is way more, as a function of body weight, than humans would ever eat. Or, they say, the association between weight gain and MSG is really an association between weight gain and processed foods, since MSG is in almost all processed foods.
What happens when we consume small amounts of MSG as a flavoring day after day after day—as school children do when they drink chocolate milk? A 2008 study, published in the journal Obesity, confirms that MSG is indeed associated with weight gain in humans, and not because of its inclusion in processed foods. In this well-designed trial, researchers at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill studied 750 Chinese men and women, ages 40 to 59, living in three rural Chinese villages.
Most of the study subjects prepared their meals at home without commercially processed foods and about 82 percent used MSG. Those participants who used the highest amounts of MSG had nearly three times the incidence of being overweight as those who didn’t use MSG, even when physical activity and caloric intake were accounted for.
So, our school children get low-fat sugar bombs with a pinch of obesity-inducing MSG for lunch day after day. Is it any wonder that obesity is increasing? “Lifestyle” changes such as eating fruits and vegetables or getting more exercise are no match for this stealth health snatcher.
It sounds counterintuitive, but the solution to the problem of obesity in our children is more natural saturated fat containing important vitamins, especially vitamin A: Full-fat milk, butter, cheese, and meat cooked with the fat. These foods support healthy thyroid metabolism and hormone production in ways that help them stay energetic and lean. Above all, these foods promote satiety and stable blood sugar so that children will be less likely to indulge in processed foods, many of which contain MSG.
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