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Food is a curse - and a cure
Child Obesity: A Growing Threat

Cape Cod Times
Cerise Bynoe started putting on weight at the age of 8.

''I wasn't involved in sports or any activities,'' said the 24-year-old Harwich resident and Cape Cod Community College student. ''I'd come home, throw on the tube and make cheese and crackers. It was basically my favorite pastime.''

Vincent dewitt/Cape Cod Times Cerise Bynoe, 24, began gaining weight when she was 8 years old. Her sixth-grade portrait, above left, and a February 2005 photo show the progression of her weight. Since then, she has lost 87 pounds.

Bynoe grew up a ''latchkey kid'' in Harwich and Orleans. Her food and television consumption went hand in hand. By the time she was 24 years old, she weighed 255 pounds.

''TV was a big part of it for me,'' she said of her bad eating habits.

And she's not alone.

The U.S. Surgeon General calls obesity an epidemic. No one is victimized more than children.

The January issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine published a study comparing 30,000 13- to 15-year-olds that found Americans to be the heaviest among those in 14 other industrialized countries, including France and Germany.

The study found that U.S. teenagers were more likely than teens in other countries to eat fast food, snacks and sugary sodas and to be driven to school and other activities.

Experts point to the proliferation of cheap, fast, prepackaged food as the No. 1 contributor to the U.S. weight problem. Such conveniences served in extra-large portions contain lots of fat, lots of salt and lots of sugar. Combine this with a more sedentary lifestyle and a food industry with an endless appetite for advertising. Suddenly it's not so hard to understand why three out of five Americans are overweight.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Americans are 25 pounds heavier than 40 years ago.

Just since 1970, the proportion of U.S. children who are overweight has more than doubled.

How did it come to this? How has an educated society allowed dietary habits to reach such low levels?

''I think self-esteem has a lot to do with it,'' said Bynoe, who said she has used Oprah's seven diet rules to drop 87 pounds since last February. ''So many kids watch so much television and they are brainwashed. They see so many skinny and beautiful girls on TV. The more MTV I watched, the worse I'd feel and so to feel better, I'd eat. I decided I'll never be that pretty, so why bother. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.''

It didn't help that during all those hours watching TV, Bynoe was bombarded by advertising.

Luring a younger market
The marketing of unhealthy food is flagrant, yet it's such a part of this culture it goes unnoticed.

For instance, McDonald's Happy Meals are one of the largest toy distributors in the world, said Dr. Michael Brody of the University of Maryland, chairman of the television and media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

''More than Toys-R-Us and Wal-Mart,'' he said. ''And the Happy Meal toys are usually based on a film or media, so you have media, toys and fast food, what a combination. Fifteen, 20 years ago, you didn't have type 2 diabetes in children. Now you do.''

In 1999, the food industry spent approximately $10 billion to $12 billion on marketing directly to children, said Susan Linn, the author of ''Consuming Kids'' and co-founder of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.

But you don't need an expert to tell you that. Simply look at the bottom shelves of a grocery store in the cereal or snack sections. Boxes covered with pictures of Shrek, SpongeBob SquarePants, Scooby-Doo and that cute little fish Nemo dominate.

Children see about 40,000 commercials on TV each year, a large proportion of those for foods high in fat, sugar, and calories, Linn said. But marketing has gone so much beyond commercials. Think about product placement in movies and on TV.

The Nielsen Ratings rank ''American Idol'' among the most popular program for 2- to 11-year-olds and ''Coca-Cola products are all over it,'' Linn said.

Children are especially vulnerable to the impact of advertising. Linn found a study by Stanford University stating that a 30-second commercial can influence the brand choices in 2-year-olds. Young children cannot tell the difference between a commercial and television programming. Children under 8 don't comprehend that ads are created to convince people to buy products, she said.

''There has always been marketing to children but it's grown exponentially in 20 years,'' Linn said.

But of course, it's not just children who are bombarded by advertising.

Looking at the labels
When Lisa Casey, a nutrition educator with Cape Cod Healthcare began advising diabetics and heart disease patients on how to eat, they kept saying to her, ''I wish you could go shopping with us.''

And so she did. Cape Cod Healthcare hired her to offer $10 ''grocery store tours'' of the Roche Bros. store in Mashpee a year ago.

There is nothing like taking a dietitian along to make you see how hard it is to buy healthy food.

A person who is sincerely trying to eat well could spend hours reading labels, she said.

She pointed to the ''granola bar'' section of the supermarket, a space nearly 10 feet wide and seven shelves tall. Nearly all of the boxes make claims. Yet, only the ''healthy heart'' type of Nature Valley bar and Kashi bars actually contained whole grains as the main ingredient and 3 grams of fiber or more.

Casey picked Roche Bros. for these tours because the fresh foods, produce, meats and fish look so appetizing, she said. But even here, the breads in front of the good-looking 30-foot-long deli counter offered 90 percent white flour products.

Only one whole wheat roll option existed. Whole wheat includes fiber, and much research suggests that fiber may prevent cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Casey found low-fat cheese products containing calorie-cutting Splenda, items with no trans fats and those with high fiber. Her tour was truly educational, but exhausting.

Navigating through the barrage of brightly colored packages in a store takes education and willpower. That's not easy for adults. For young people making their own food choices for the first time, it's even more challenging.

Healthy food needs to be packaged in a more fun way to attract young people, said Jennifer Rabold, an English teacher at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School. Milk consumption soared when it was placed into brightly decorated plastic containers instead of small, square cartons.

But the marketing and promotion of unhealthy food to children remains as American as, well, apple pie. One only has to sit next to the human-sized, plastic Ronald McDonald seated at the bench near the merry-go-round at the Cape Cod Mall and watch what young consumers are eating.

The reason Americans consume so much fast food is simple: ''It's cheap, it tastes good and it's fast,'' said Brody of the University of Maryland.

The ultimate result: The poor diets of young Americans could make the generation born after 2000 the first in the nation's history to die at a younger age than their parents, said Ann Cooper, a chef, author and advocate for childhood nutrition from East Hampton, N.Y.

''Our children need to understand the symbiotic relationship between what we eat and wellness,'' she said. ''If they don't do that, then we'll be looking for some fancy medical company to come along with a pill. It will bankrupt our health care system. There is no pill. People have to realize food is the cure

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