Childhood obesity rates have climbed disturbingly high in recent years and pose a significant public health threat to the nation’s youth, both today and in the years to come as this population ages and begins to experience the myriad of health issues correlated with being overweight at a young age. As many are aware, much of this obesity problem is related to diets flooded with high-calorie processed foods and nearly devoid of nutritious fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Results of a recent study released by Economic Research Service (ERS), a source of economic research and analysis within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, revealed a new factor to consider when analyzing and trying to put an end to the childhood obesity epidemic: food obtained outside the home. According to the research, increased consumption of foods outside the home may be a reason why obesity rates continue to rise.
Most meals children eat outside the home come from restaurants, fast-food establishments and schools, so the study took a look at how children’s diets are affected by commercially prepared food and food available for purchase from school (rather than strictly looking at USDA reimbursable school meals). The researchers found that as measured by the Healthy Eating Index, the food coming from commercial sources is linked with increased caloric intake and lower diet quality.
“This finding strengthens the argument that there is a causal relationship between food away from home and both increased caloric consumption and decreased dietary quality,” the research summary stated. “It also supports policy and educational efforts to improve children’s choices of away-from-home foods and beverages.”
Truly alarming are the actual numbers associated with the increase in calories in meals eaten outside the home compared to within the home.
“After controlling for the effects of consumption of caloric sweetened beverages, researchers find that, for all children, each away-from-home meal adds 65 calories and lowers diet quality scores by 4 percent, compared with meals prepared at home,” the ERS summary stated. “For older children, the effect amounts to 107 additional calories for each away-from-home meal.”
Also controlling for caloric beverage intake, the researchers found that consumption of all food from school did not seem to have any detrimental effects on the diets of children ages 6-13, but for children 13 through 18-years-old the results were different. Food obtained from school added 145 calories per day compared with food from home, which leads researchers to believe that among this older age group, attempts to improve the quality of food obtained away from home (including from school), may be particularly important.
Behavioral Economics, a Targetted Approach
On a related note, in an effort to improve the nutrition and health-related outcomes of its Child Nutrition Programs, the USDA recently announced $2 million in grants for behavioral economics research. The money will fund 14 research projects throughout the U.S., as well as the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, which is a new research center that will look at using the principles of economics and social psychology to encourage children to make better food choices. Additionally, the money will be used to fund studies that measure the effectiveness of certain behavioral economics-based strategies in helping children in USDA school meal programs make better food choices, workshops to help people better understand the application of behavioral economics to nutrition programs, and put towards fostering relationships between researchers and agencies that implement state or local school meal programs.
Simply educating children on the importance of a healthy diet does not always lead to wise food choices, which is where the behavioral economics research comes into play. The research looks at factors such as incentives and visual clues in order to help schools come up with practical and cost-effective ways to support and encourage healthy food choices.
“Students may value the present over the future, making it hard to turn down today’s tasty treat for the sake of long-term health,” the USDA release states. “But research suggests we can support good intentions via the use of a pre-paid card that only allows students to purchase healthy options from the school cafeteria.”
Because weight issues seem to be largely influenced by the food children eat outside the home, using results of behavioral economics-based research to encourage better food choices may lead to healthier children. What do you think? Are adequate steps being taken towards lowering childhood obesity rates in America, or is the issue being brushed aside far more than it should be?
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