A pediatrician from the Children’s Health Center at St. Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury thinks so.
“Commercialism is driving change in how we feed our infants,” Dr. M. Alex Geertsma told a group of advocates Monday at a Capitol forum on childhood obesity.
Geertsma said infants go from nursing or breastfeeding, which has proven to prevent childhood obesity, to eating additive-free, pureed mixed of foods.
“This is where the good news stops,” Geertsma said.
Problems arise at a greater rate when infants begin to give social cues that they are ready to consume more than liquids and purees. After being on a liquid diet for the first six months of life, they begin to taste discriminate, or recognize certain foods as tasty or disgusting. They begin to want something “novel” whether it is extremely sweet or really salty.
“This suggests to me that we’re meant to continue to get a variety of different foods as we got a little bit older,” Geertsma said.
This is when the foods that appear on grocery store shelves begin to be detrimental to children’s health. The change in palate prompts the food industry to make mixed dinners with huge amounts of added starch and finger foods like “heavily spiced” Gerber Lil’ Graduates Meat Sticks, Geertsma said.
These meat sticks contain 300 mg of sodium.
Starting at age nine, children start eating cookies and fruit snacks, Geertsma said. This provides kids with huge amounts of added sugar and “clearly primes the pump for them to prefer certain foods.” Think Oreos and gummy bears.
“I try to explain these things to parents and there’s an initial resistance,” Geertsma said “But as they talk about it in terms of normal developmental processes they re-think why they respond to their children’s demands for eating things and they start to see this as a manipulation.”
At the forum, Geertsma discussed the normal growth process in which there is an increase body fat that occurs after the percentage of body fat reaches its lowest point.
“Infants will grow most rapidly in particularly weight versus height during the first six months of life,” Geertsma said. “They then slow somewhat, but then really slow down in the period from one to approximately seven or eight years of life.”
So most children look fairly lean during that period of time, he added.
But it has been recently confirmed in Connecticut that an increase in body fat has been occurring much earlier than seven to eight years of age in children who eventually become long-term obese. This pattern is worse in African-American and Latino children, Geertsma said.
“I would not try to impugn the food industry in doing this overtly or even covertly. They may simply be following what consumers want,” he added.
Obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, after smoking, according to the Connecticut Public Health Department.
“In just over one generation, U.S. rates of obesity have approximately tripled among preschoolers and adolescents, and quadruples among children aged six to 11 years old,” according to the Connecticut Public Health Department.
If a child is overweight before age 8, obesity in adulthood is likely to be more severe, statistics by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed.
A recent Connecticut report found that about one third of Connecticut children in kindergarten and third grade are overweight or obese and about one out of every seven are obese.
The Connecticut Coalition Against Childhood Obesity, a coalition of more than 30 health advocacy organizations across the state, hosted the forum Monday to discuss ways to overcome the obesity epidemic, which they say is contributing to the achievement gap.
According to the American Medical Association obesity kills more Americans than AIDs, cancer, and injuries combined. At this rate, the current generation of children will not live as long as their parents.