Overweight kids: Here are Slate readers' 12 best ideas for reducing the rate of childhood obesity.

March 20 2011 10:43 PM

"Time To Trim" Winners

Here are Slate readers' 12 best ideas for reducing the rate of childhood obesity.

Children at a farmers market in Los Angeles, CA.
Is there a cure for childhood obesity?

Almost a month ago, we launched "Time To Trim," a crowdsourcing project to generate new ideas for reducing childhood obesity in the United States. Slate readers have submitted nearly 350 ideas and more than 2,000 votes for their favorites. Readers have also been engaging in some lively debate in the comments.

Voting is now closed, and we've rounded up 12 winning entries: six automatically selected because they were the top reader picks, and six more chosen by our panel of expert judges. 

The judges' top six picks are:

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5. Food Stamp Incentives, by Zahava

The readers' top six picks are:

1. Push Play Instead of Push-Ups, by Matt Bowers
2. End Corn Subsidies, submitted anonymously
3. Improving Sidewalks, Bike Lanes, and Street Safety, submitted anonymously
4. Change the Parent's Mind, Change the Child's Life, by HealthCoachRobyn
5. Build an Online Network, by Elizabeth Brotherton
6. Subsidize Small Local Farmers, by Rebecca Rothfeld

Our panel of six judges is made up of experts in food, nutrition, fitness, and public health. They are David A. Kessler, M.D., former FDA commissioner and author of The End of Overeating; Amy Bentley, associate professor of food studies at New York University; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., the director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, editor-in-chief of the journal Childhood Obesity, and chief science officer at NuVal, LLC; Marlene Schwartz, M.D., deputy director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and an expert on children's eating behavior; Natalie Digate Muth, M.D., R.D., M.P.H., a dietitian, fitness professional, and pediatrics resident at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital; and Christina Economos, associate professor at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy . Each judge nominated his or her six favorite proposals out of a list of 30 editors' picks; judges were also asked to rate all five proposals on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. The six proposals that received the most nominations and the highest rankings from panel members ended up as winners:

1. Stop Being Afraid of the Food Industry, by Maria: Nominated by four of the five judges, this proposal argues that the food industry needs to be held accountable for what it serves to children. As Bentley notes, "Maria has listed six crucial elements necessary to create a healthful food environment for our kids (for all of us). Central to this is eliminating or sharply curtailing processed food advertising and radically altering food subsidies." Kessler says that while he may not agree with all of Maria's proposed solutions: "I do agree that the suppliers of our food have a responsibility to consumers. The food industry now understands that foods loaded and layered with sugar, fat, and salt are changing our neural circuitry so that many of us eat for stimulation rather than satisfaction. What is the industry going to do about it?"

2. Teach Children Cognitive Control, by Kristin V.: The panel's second-favorite proposal argues that children need to be taught how to deal with the pressures and temptations of the modern food environment. In Muth's evaluation, "This author makes an extremely important point that is too often neglected: If children (and adults for that matter) know to listen to their bodies to eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full, then the body does an exceptional job of moderating caloric intake." Katz adds: "There is potential here. Marketing experts could teach even young children how consumers are being 'manipulated,' and part of the cognitive strategy would be to make kids marketing-savvy."

3.  A Holistic Approach to Reversing Childhood Obesity Rates, by Rachel Assuncao: This judges' pick aims to address the problem through education, food availability, advertising, and physical activity. Discussing the advertising component, Schwartz says: "I agree completely that we have all been brainwashed into thinking that kids will only eat 'kids foods.' As a species, we managed to survive for millennia prior to the invention of pizza, hot dogs, chicken fingers, and French fries. Getting rid of the marketing of these foods to children will go a long way in helping parents reset the norms of what a meal looks like." She also likes the proposal's suggestion to give tax deductions for sports activities and equipment. Muth notes, "This proposal covered just about all of the bases, emphasizing a multi-faceted approach to stamp out obesity," but concedes that "the actual implementation of a detailed plan would be difficult.

4. Legislate, Educate, and Inoculate To Create Food-Savvy Kids, by Bettina at The Lunch Tray: In the final judges' pick, the writer proposes: "Real legislative muscle needs to be employed to restrain [food] manufacturers from teaching our kids all the wrong messages about food," and schools also need to offer every child "a basic course in food literacy." Schwartz says she likes this proposal because it points out that "in addition to having the government regulate the food industry, children can be brought onto the team by educating them about how they are being used by big companies for profits."

5. Food Stamp Incentives, by Zahava: Here, the writer advocates "making healthy foods, and fresh fruits and vegetables in particular, cheaper for those on food stamps" (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). This proposal is Katz's favorite, because in his view, "linking financial incentives to objective measures of nutritional quality could have a meaningful impact on diet quality and health." In fact, he says, he and his team at NuVal are currently working on this type of initiative (unrelated to SNAP).

6.  Change the cultural norms around eating, by JenInNH: The panel's next favorite submission says we need to institute social mores that "dictate specific acceptable times and places for eating," so that kids don't grow up with the notion that it's OK to eat and drink constantly throughout the day. As Kessler explains, "The change in social norms surrounding eating is a crucial factor in the obesity epidemic. The 24/7 availability of hyperpalatable foods and the social acceptability of consuming them around the clock have created a public health crisis."

There were dissenting votes among the panel, to be sure. Two judges rated "Teach Children Cognitive Control" only a 3 out of 5; the one judge who didn't nominate "Stop Being Afraid of the Food Industry" gave it a 2. Bentley says her seventh pick would have been Health at Every Size, explaining, "Just the way the question is framed (how to reduce childhood obesity) creates an environment that stigmatizes fat kids, and until we reframe the discussion we won't end the problem." (Slate's Daniel Engber would agree.)

As for the readers' picks, they are about evenly split between proposals that advocate some kind of government intervention and those that promote social and behavioral changes. Starting with the top vote-getter, the reader-selected winners are:

1. Push Play Instead of Push-Ups, by Matt Bowers: By far the readers' favorite, this proposal takes a critical look at the state of sports in America, arguing that over the years, exercise has become less about joy than about hard work. "Now, when people think about physical activity, they often find themselves immersed in imagery of treadmills, dumbbells, and push-ups," Bowers writes. "While I cannot speak for all Americans, I can certainly speak for myself when I say that those images do little to make me want to leave the comfort of my couch." He advocates spending public-health funds to make physical activity an intrinsically enjoyable experience for children (and adults).

2. End Corn Subsidies, submitted anonymously: This second-place readers' pick focuses on the calorie-intake part of the equation—specifically on the role of agricultural subsidies in making unhealthy calories from corn syrup cheaper than nutritious foods.

3. Improving Sidewalks, Bike Lanes, and Street Safety, submitted anonymously: This proposal reflects a theme that we saw in quite a few entries, about changing city infrastructure to encourage kids to walk and ride bikes more often. In this view, if kids could get around on foot or by bike (instead of being driven everywhere by safety-conscious parents), kids would burn more calories and therefore avoid becoming obese.

4. Change the Parent's Mind, Change the Child's Life, by HealthCoachRobyn: Readers' fourth-favorite proposal addresses parents' role in children's health. "We've got to start with the adults," the writer explains. "Education, support and positive coaching have to begin at home. Let's support the whole family, and we will change the children." This point counters the many proposals that argue the key place to address childhood obesity is at school. (Interestingly, no school-food ideas made it into the six readers' favorites, and only one squeaked into the top 10—perhaps readers were influenced by Slate contributor Jane Black's article on why school lunch is not the answer.)

5.  Build an Online Network, by Elizabeth Brotherton: This idea bridges the divide between many of the previously suggested interventions. Brotherton proposes that we create an online network that brings together people working on obesity-prevention efforts across the country—so ostensibly all of the above efforts would fit into her framework. As she writes, "On PreventObesity.net, people concerned with childhood obesity can sign up to make connections and work to tackle the most important issues together."

6. Subsidize Small Local Farmers, by Rebecca Rothfeld (a Slate intern): Like the No. 2 readers' pick, this proposal also focuses on subsidies, but it advocates using them for good instead of evil. The government should subsidize local farmers in order to help lower produce prices, Rothfeld writes. "Additionally, the provision of food stamps, to be used only in the purchase of certain (healthier) items, would be instrumental in training children to prefer healthier options," she explains.

In conjunction with this Hive project,Slate is hosting a forum on childhood obesity at The Cleveland Clinic on April 21. The event will feature talks by experts on obesity and health, including David L. Katz, Dean Ornish, Ezekiel Emanuel, and many more. If you're interested in attending the event, please send an email to HiveEvent@gmail.com.

Christy Harrison is a writer and editor specializing in food, nutrition, and health. She is currently pursuing a Master's of Public Health and registered dietitian's license at New York University. Previously she was the online editor at Gourmetmagazine.

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