How to Keep Santa from Making Our Kids Gain Weight
Policies that improve public health
Posted Dec 04, 2017
The holidays are upon us. It’s a time to celebrate with loved ones, maybe even enjoy a well-earned vacation. But it is also a time that many of us gain weight, with children developing eating habits that could set them on a trajectory towards being overweight or obese.
It is really crucial to help our children avoid gaining too much weight. Because once people become obese, myriad biologic factors conspire against their efforts to lose weight. Consider a study that came out last year showing what happened to contestants on The Biggest Loser–most of whom gained back most of the weight they lost while participating on the television show. Or look at the difficulty even wealthy people with great willpower have sustaining weight loss, people like Mike Huckabee and Oprah Winfrey.
That’s why the key to combating America’s obesity problem is to prevent children from developing obesity.
But how can we keep our children from becoming obese? All of us with children can do our best to serve our kids healthy, appropriately portioned meals, while encouraging them to be physically active. But what about us as a society–what can we do? What policies can we embrace that will reduce the rate of childhood obesity?
In an elegant analysis, Steven Gortmaker and colleagues reviewed current evidence on the impact that a wide range of policies are likely to have on obesity rates. They crunched the numbers and tried to figure out which interventions would have the biggest impact. For instance, they looked at studies of calorie information labeling to see how these policies have been shown to influence behavior. They averaged the effects across all the studies, and also ran high-end and low-end estimates (a plausible range within which the true effect of these policies should lie), to see how that influenced their results. They did the same for a number of other interventions.
The identified the three most promising policies, each of which (and this is extremely important) saved more money in healthcare costs than they cost to implement. What are these three policies?
- Sugar-sweetened beverage tax. A tax of one cent per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages would cost about $50 million dollars to implement, but would, gulp (or should I say “Big Gulp”?) prevent more than half a million cases of childhood obesity by 2025.
- Eliminate tax deductibility of ads seen by children for unhealthy foods. This policy would cost less than one million dollars to implement while preventing almost 130,000 cases of childhood obesity.
- Setting nutrition standards for school foods--specifically, for foods sold in schools that aren’t part of school meals. This policy would cost $22 million to implement while preventing almost 350,000 children from becoming obese.
These are not the only policies we can utilize to combat childhood obesity. Nutrition standards for school meals have the opportunity to prevent millions of children from becoming obese. This policy, however, doesn’t save money, so it didn’t make the authors' top-three list. That said, nutrition standards for school meals were deemed by the authors to essentially be cost-neutral, which in my opinion means that this policy also deserves to be implemented. Preventing childhood obesity isn’t about saving money, after all. It’s about improving the quality of Americans' lives.
We need to continue exploring creative ways of combating childhood obesity. But we also know enough about some policies that we ought to implement them. Yesterday!
We shouldn’t let political extremists, who oppose all government interventions, or special interests, who oppose sugar taxes, stand in the way of good public policy. If we care about the health of our children, we should take steps that will reduce their chance of becoming obese. Don’t let another holiday season slip by without letting someone in Congress know that you care enough about your children to support efforts to help them develop healthier habits.
*Previously Published in Forbes*