Battle of the Bulge
By Sari Harrar
(This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Haverford magazine.)
As deputy director for Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Marlene Schwartz '88 looks at how kids' food choices are shaped by the world around them. School, home, neighborhoods, TV and social media, she says, play powerful yet often-overlooked roles in the childhood obesity epidemic. They can also be part of the solution. In studies focused on school cafeterias in Connecticut, for example, she found that when unhealthy drinks and snacks are removed, students are more likely to eat a nutritionally balanced lunch and do not make up for the missing junk by eating more of it at homeâ€”proving skeptics wrong.
Schwartz, who received her doctorate in clinical psychology from Yale, has received numerous research grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health. She helped develop WellSAT (Wellness School Assessment Tool, www.wellsat.org), an online tool that states, schools and health advocates are using to improve school wellness policies across the nation. At home in Guilford, Conn., with her husband, Jeff Babbin, and their three daughters, Schwartz's passion for raising healthy kids means there's whole-wheat pasta in the cupboard and ice cream in the freezer, too.
SARI HARRAR: One in three American kids and teens is now overweight or obese. As a result, they face a higher lifetime risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and strokes than their parents or grandparents. What's driving this health crisis?
MARLENE SCHWARTZ: Rates of obesity have risen so dramatically that no reasonable person can say it's a failure of individual responsibility. The thing that has changed is our food environment. We've gone from a society where most people ate three meals a day with relatively healthy foods and healthy portion sizes to out-of-whack eating. Kids are snacking constantly. Soda is now the number-one source of calories in teens' diets. In the 1970s, kids drank more milk and had just a few servings of soda a week. By the mid-1990s, this was reversed. The increase in calories from sugar-sweetened beverages is one of the most striking changes. Busy families today rely more on restaurant meals, fast food and convenience foods, too. As a working mother, I know that these foods are quick and easy, but as a researcher I know that they're consistently higher in sugar, fat, sodium and calories than meals made at home. We've handed responsibility for preparing our food over to the food industry, but their priority is selling food, not necessarily making it healthy.
SH: Why are schools so important in reversing the obesity epidemic?
MS: Schools have a lot of power beyond the calories served in the cafeteria. They're symbolic of our society's view of what's important. They're one of our biggest public institutions, our laws govern them, and we pay for them with our taxes. They represent how we think our children should be treated. The improvements in the National School Lunch Program coming this fall will automatically improve what millions and millions of kids eat every day.
Schools set the norm. A great example is soda. In the past, walking by a soda machine dozens of times a day sent kids the message that the school thought soda was a pretty good product. Getting soda out of schools has brought consumption down. Research at the Rudd Center shows kids don't compensate by getting more calories from junk food elsewhere when it's taken out of school. Alone, that won't solve the obesity crisis, but it makes me crazy when people say changes in schools aren't worth doing. No single change is the solution. But changing kids' attitudes and behavior encourages healthier eating while cutting some empty calories out of their day.
SH: Speaking of school lunches, what do you think about the upgrades announced this spring by Michelle Obama?
MS: I think the changes to the National School Lunch Program are great. There are calorie maximums for the first time, and more emphasis on portion sizes. In the past, lunch had to include a fruit or a vegetable. Now it must have both, and there has to be more variety than just corn and potatoes. The switch to more whole grains and leaner meats is also good. The rules could be stronger. The potato and tomato lobbyists got involved and influenced rules on starchy vegetables and how much tomato paste on pizza could count as a vegetable, but we've made great strides.
My bigger concern now is a category called“competitive foods.” These include ice cream, chips, junky snacks and sports drinks sold in snack machines, at bake sales, or in the school store. It's not the cupcakes at the class party, but it's any food sold at school outside the lunch and breakfast programs. This food can be sold at any price, and if it's available at lunchtime, as it is in many high schools, kids often choose it over the school lunch. Schools have painted themselves into a corner, because they use these foods to make money, yet they're a big source of calories, fat, sugar and salt. Competitive foods have never been regulated by the government, but the USDA is expected to release standards for the first time this summer.
SH: I understand that a flyer about a cookie-eating contest when your oldest daughter was in first grade got you involved in supporting healthy changes in your local school district. What happened?
MS: I basically went ballistic. How do you plan a cookie-eating contest when we are in the middle of a childhood obesity epidemic? The principal and I formed an immediate alliance, which continued for years and years. We created the district's first health advisory committee and really worked to change the food culture in the schools. A bigger concern was the potato chips and ice cream and Pop-Tarts being sold at the time to elementary school kids. It's hard to convince little first- and second-graders not to eat this stuff at lunch. The principal and superintendent agreed to take them out.
SH: You were co-director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders for 10 years before joining the Rudd Center. What inspired you to shift from one-on-one counseling as a clinical psychologist to studying obesity?
MS: Losing weight and keeping it off is very, very difficult. I'm very glad there are counselors out there working with people on this. I felt a better way to spend my time was to focus on broader policy changes that can prevent childhood obesity in the first place. Haverford taught me that you're part of a community and that the community can and should think about the greater good. That applies in my workâ€”we look at the greater good for kids. Does a student's“right” to buy a Coke at school override the community's need to keep kids healthy? No.
SH: Soda and energy drinks are being marketed directly to kids and teens via social media, email and websites as well as conventional TV commercials these days, according to a Rudd Center report on sugar-sweetened beverages which you coauthored. How can parents push back against this type of advertising aimed at their kids?
MS: Manufacturers aggressively target kids on Facebook, websites, and through product placements on video games. Most of the time the ads hardly feature the foodâ€”it's all about convincing the child to develop a relationship with the brand. It's a good idea to talk with your kids about not ever giving out their friends' e mail addresses, even when a site looks friendly. Beyond that, the best thing parents can do is keep televisions out of your children's bedrooms and make smart decisions at the grocery store. If you don't bring sugary drinks, candycolored yogurt, or packaged“fruit snacks” into your home, you are sending a powerful message to your kids.
SH: Does that mean your own kitchen contains only 100 percent“healthy” food?
MS: You have to live in the real world. I have a“one dessert a day” policy. You get one reasonably sized treat like a single-serve cup of ice cream or a cookie or two. Or French fries or potato chipsâ€”they count as discretionary calories. The deal is, if you've gone to a birthday party or had a doughnut at breakfast, you don't get a second dessert later on. Since I don't keep boxes of cookies in the house, my daughters have become outstanding bakers. We have about a dozen cookbooks devoted to desserts. They'll make a small batch and save the rest. I think there's frozen chocolate-chip cookie dough in our freezer right now.”
Freelance writer Sari Harrar specializes in health and science. Her articles appear in national magazines, including O, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health and others. She last wrote for the magazine about the Snipes family farm.