Fat. Just close your eyes and let that one roll around in your head for a moment. Did you come up with thoughts of overweight and unhealthy?
Propaganda is powerful stuff.
Fat is at the forefront of current marketing efforts to make food more attractive to the consumer. Labels that read “Low-fat,” “non-fat,” “now with 25% less fat” are intended to convince you that eating less fat is the path to good health. Marketing is full of messages that suggest fat is bad and, of course we know that bad things are not good for us, therefore, we should avoid them if we desire to be “the healthy.”
The only problem here is fat is not really a bad thing, nor is fat necessarily bad for you.
Fat and Fudging the Numbers
Adolphe Quetelet calculated what we now know as the BMI equation in 1832 as a way to define “the normal man.” He never intended for the equation to be used to determine optimum health – his project was intended to describe the standard proportions of the human build.
By 1985, the National Institute of Health began defining obesity according to body mass index. Then, the thresholds for normal were established at 27.8 for men and 27.3 for women. In 1998, the NIH consolidated the threshold for men and women (even though the relationship between BMI and body fat differs by gender), and added the category of overweight. The new, drastically lowered BMI thresholds became 25 for overweight and 30 for obese. Many who were on the “independent” board making the recommendations for the new lower cutoffs had ties to the commercial weight-loss industry and stood to profit financially when more people believed they were overweight.
Little is being done to put an end to weight bias. According to a study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, obese individuals shown in online news images are frequently portrayed in a negative and stigmatizing way, and were less likely to be portrayed as experts, advocates, journalists, or professionals compared to thinner individuals. Data obtained from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States found that men are not at serious risk for weight bias until their body mass index (BMI) reaches 35 or higher, while women begin experiencing a notable increase in weight discrimination risk at a BMI level of 27.
Remember, up until the National Institute of Health lowered BMI cutoffs in 1998, a BMI of 27 was just below what was then considered a very normal weight. Although the first declaration of “war” on obesity remains up for debate, 1998 was also the same year the US first published the federal guidelines on weight, titled “Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults: The Evidence Report”.
Are we really fatter than we were two and a half decades ago or are the new numbers just making it appear that way?
Sadly, BMI focused health equates fat with obesity and pairs it with words like crisis and epidemic. The result is a cleverly implemented misinformation campaign cloaked in good intentions. The Ontario Healthy Kids Panel is just one example. This appointed collection of ‘experts’ asked parents what it means to raise a healthy child.
“[Parents] said they want their children to grow up in a supportive community, surrounded by family and friends. They want them to know they are loved and valued, to be accepting of others, to “fit in” at school, to be self-confident, and to be able to make healthy choices throughout their lives. They want them to grow up to be healthy adults and good citizens.”
We heard loud and clear from parents that their children’s health is their top priority, but they need some support to help their children become and stay at a healthy weight.
Wait … What?
How did loved and valued, accepting of others, fit in at school and self-confident become “a healthy weight?” Not surprisingly, the agenda includes changing the food environment to restrict access to “high-calorie / low-nutrient” foods.
Crazy Little Thing Called … Fat
The science of pediatrics is built on the belief that a healthy childhood is the strongest base for adult health. As a result, much of the basis for public health policies directed at children are focused on reducing chronic disease in adulthood and preventing obesity in general.
For the general population, the CDC recommends children 4-18 years get 30-40% of their calories from fat. This dietary guidance has been supported by the Canadian Pediatric Society and Health Canada since 1996, when it was concluded that the science did not support recommendations to limit a child’s intake of dietary fat lower than 30% of total daily calories. The joint working group concluded that there was no evidence that implementation of a fat-restricted diet would reduce illness in later life or provide benefit to children as children. Canadian dietary guidance for children recommends a gradual taper of dietary fat from 40% at 2 years to 30% at the conclusion of linear growth.
In 2000, the American Society for Clinical Nutrition added that children can meet their energy needs for maintenance, physical activity, and growth from a diet providing 30% of energy from fat. Less than 30% could lead to nutritional deficiencies. “Diets higher in fat may lead to higher energy intakes and higher body fat, although available data for children are conflicting.”
Fat is an essential component of a well balanced diet. Dietary fat helps the body absorb vitamins A (vision), D (bone growth), E (antioxidant) & K (blood clotting). Fats also make food taste better. The good stuff in the leafy green and orange vegetables really do go better with butter.
But aren’t some fats better than others? For a long time, saturated fats (meat and dairy) have been the bad fats and unsaturated (oils) have been the heroes. Advice to substitute vegetable oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in place of saturated (animal) fats to help reduce the risk of heart disease has been a cornerstone of dietary guidelines for the past half century. Recently, missing data from the Sydney Diet Heart Study (1966-1973) was located and reviewed. The results call this cornerstone of dietary guidance into question, and states “substituting saturated fats for PUFAs shows no evidence of benefit, and suggests a possible increased risk of cardiovascular disease, emphasizing the need to rethink mechanisms linking diet to heart disease.”
A survey of food preferences of students in grades 3 through 12 in an Ohio school district revealed that many high fat and calorie foods are popular with this age range; however, many foods, especially fruits that are encouraged as part of a healthy diet, were identified as favorites. Sure, chicken nuggets, pizza and french fries ranked as highly liked, but so did milk, strawberries, grapes and yogurt.
Research from the Canadian Pediatric Society shows “little evidence that food preferences in childhood are stable” and “evidence that childhood dietary patterns persist into adulthood is weak”. From the perspective of what a child’s body needs vs. what an adult needs nutritionally, it appears that children (generally) already know what they’re doing. Protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, where fats provide 9 calories per gram. The math alone offers insight into understanding why the littles always seem to have room for a peanut butter sandwich, but rarely a second (or even a first) helping of broccoli. For a young child, consuming sufficient energy for growth and development with a tiny tummy, fats just make sense.
So… if fats are backed by good evidence to comprise roughly 1/3 of a child’s diet, and dietary fat is needed to help the body absorb certain vitamins found in fruit and vegetables, and the kids already seem to know what they need, and what foods they enjoy eating, and how much to eat, why aren’t we shouting bloody blue murder at those who are trying to fix what isn’t broken?
“While there is great concern among public and private anti-obesity groups about the apparent excessive amount of fat our children are eating, that’s not what the government’s dietary statistics show. The total fat intake of kids is currently about 32%. That is well within even the 25-35% recommended for children by the 2006 Dietary Guidelines. So the tremendous energies and initiatives being undertaken to get children to eat “healthier,” low-fat diets are based more on fear marketing than facts.”~Feeding Our Children Well, Junk Food Science
Bloody Blue Murder And A Side of Fries
My seven year old daughter announced that her Health class is loaded with “don’t eat this” and “don’t eat that” and only to eat “a little bit” of fat. Fed up with the rhetoric, she challenged the teacher.
“My mom says kids need more that a little bit of fat!” (That’s my girl!)
The teacher responded, “Your mom should read a book about food.”
While I find the teacher’s ad hominem manner amusing, I am genuinely disturbed by the message promoting dietary restriction to a classroom full of seven year olds.
Not all children have my daughter’s spunk. Even fewer have a mom who writes a selective eating blog. But being a good student, I did some reading and discovered the science unanimously agrees that applying food restriction to children is a terrible idea.
Here’s why. The Ontario Ministry of Education’s School Food and Beverage Policy requires all Ontario school cafeterias to sell only healthy foods. The child who regularly drinks full fat chocolate milk will now find only low fat milk (without chocolate). He doesn’t like plain white, low-fat milk so he doesn’t drink any milk. By restricting his preferred higher fat, higher sugar beverage for a “healthier option”, the policy has decreased this child’s intake of dietary fat, vitamin D and calories. This is not better.
The science agrees:
“Restricting children’s access to palatable foods is not an effective means of promoting moderate intake of palatable foods and may encourage the intake of foods that should be limited in the diet.” - Department of Human Development and Family Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, 1999
“These investigators found that restricting access to palatable foods enhanced the interest of 3- to 5-year-old children in those foods and increased their desire to obtain and consume those foods. They concluded that “stringent parental controls can potentiate preference for high-fat energy-dense foods, limit children’s acceptance of a variety of foods and disrupt children’s regulation of energy intake.” College of Medicine, University of South Florida, 2000
“Findings suggest that the use of controlling food-related parenting practices, including pressure-to-eat and restriction, is common among parents of adolescents. Mean restriction levels were significantly higher among parents of overweight and obese adolescents compared with non overweight adolescents.” - Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, 2013
“Study findings provide evidence of an association between controlling food-related parenting practices and adolescent disordered eating behaviors, particularly in boys.” - Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, 2013
Not only do children need more than “a little bit” of fat, but restricting children’s access to palatable, high fat, high calorie foods contributes to obesity, is associated with disordered eating, and makes children want the restricted food even more. As parents and as individuals, we have no need to fear fat, whether “fat” is what we think we are or what we eat. We were not meant to all be the same shape or size or weight anymore than we were designed to like the same flavours, or eat certain foods in specific amounts. Our children are no different, and when trusted with eating, often do much better nutritionally on their own than we could ever achieve by denying them food they enjoy.
Why are we not questioning government directed programs to restrict access to high fat / high calorie foods in an attempt to reduce obesity, when these programs are actively creating the very problem they claim to want to solve? It would do us all a world of good to challenge the “healthy” messaging. Considering the direction the anti-obesity and healthy eating camps are steering public perceptions, can we really afford not to?
I receive no compensation for any resources recommended on this blog. For more information on eating competence, visit Ellyn Satter Institute.
If you need personalized feeding advice and support, I suggest the very knowledgeable Feeding Doctor.
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PS: Books about Food I Recommend:
Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, and Child of Mine, by Ellyn Satter
Love Me Feed Me, by Dr. Katja Rowell
Fearless Feeding, by Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen