mardi 9 avril 2013

Why kids are getting fatter: it's the environment, stupid

According to the latest research on why children are getting fatter, the main culprit is the environment. Take kids with normal genes and normal activities and put them in a fattening environment and they will get fat. Seems fairly obvious, right? But what is meant by "environment"? What are these environmental factors that are producing more obesity in children than ever before. It turns out that they range from the seemingly small things - like plate size - to the more substantial things - like not getting enough sleep because of school-related tasks. And then there's the rest: fast food, technology, more eating out, more exposure to food advertising, more processed foods and sugary drinks, larger serving sizes, easy access to all this shit (think vending machines, sporting events, giant home refrigerators and pantries loaded up for Armegeddon), etc.

The good news is that parents have some control over many of these environmental factors. For example, they can make sure their kids get to bed at a decent hour and buy smaller plates. They can prohibit sugary drinks in the gigantic home refrigerator and refrain from buying processed foods to be served as snacks. They can buy apples, oranges and pears instead. They can insist on home-cooked meals and - this is not on the list above but is a pet peeve of mine - they can stop acting like short-order cooks. This requires planning and making a meal, not anticipating a myriad of individual whims and wants. They can lock up their pantries and tell the kids to go out and get some fresh air. In other words, they can create an environment that resembles nothing so much as the one I grew up in, way back in the 1960s. My mom never bought Hostess twinkies or pies or "pop", which is what we called soda. She never bought those little packages of potato chips and fritos that the other kids got in their lunch boxes. We didn't even have lunch boxes. We carried our lunch to school in brown paper bags. Lunch was a sandwich on brown bread (which filled me with shame and indignation), a piece of fruit (usually an apple) and a small box of sunmaid raisins. I suppose we got homemade cookies once in awhile. Occasionally, my grandmother would bring us a bag of forbidden booty: red whips, packages of chips, mini boxes of sugar cereal, 7up... It never lasted long. We snarfed it up like famished street urchins. But I digress. I used to love to babysit for people (which girls were encouraged to do from about thirteen on) because it was an opportunity to raid their pantries for ding dongs, hohos, Hostess cherry pies, twinkies and other delights. I once ate dog food during a babysitting gig, but only because I was curious about the taste. It tasted like dog breath, pretty much, but I liked the captain crunchiness of the kibble.

I'm not suggesting that parents give their kids dog food, but reading about the importance of environment in curbing obesity, I was reminded of my dog Neko. At Neko's last visit with the vet, I was alarmed to see that she was a pound above her top winter weight. This may not sound like much, but Neko's normal weight is 20 pounds. In the winter, she generally puts on a pound. This winter, she put on 2. I decided it was time for a change. I was truly worried she would get diabetes. After analyzing the situation, I quickly realized that Neko's major obstacle to weight loss was her handlers. We control her environment. Even if she understood what it was for, she could not open the refrigerator and pull out a hunk of meat. Neko's weight gain was mostly due to being fed from the table, being given too many snacks, her getting cat food from the floor and her eating cat poop from the litter box. On these last two points, in our defense let me say that one of our cats is severely disabled. We cannot put the litter box downstairs; nor can we put the cat food in a place where Neko cannot get to it. It has to be served on the floor. However, it does not have to be left on the floor at all times. I told Walt that our five-year experiment with Neko had yielded the following finding: Neko, like all dogs, will eat whatever she can get to. Ergo, it was time for her handlers to make some changes. I bought some high fiber kibble that's lower in calories and supposedly more filling. We started feeding Neko at the same time as the cats, 5 pm. Before, Neko was a late diner like us. The first few days, she thought she was getting two meals, but now she has the drill down. One of us patrols the kitchen during the feeding minute (this event sometimes lasts just 30 seconds for Neko) and then removes the leftover cat food as soon as the cats walk away. I watch over the litter box like a hawk, cleaning it several times per day. Not one morsel of kitty roca goes undetected. We have stopped setting aside a bit of our dinner on a special plate, just for Neko. She had trained us to do this as a sort of ransom for allowing us to eat in peace. She was getting regular exercise, but now she gets a 45-minute walk every day.

It has been about two months since we altered Neko's environment. I think she is down at least a pound, which is five percent of her total body weight. She has more energy. According to her many fans, she looks better. She still tries to get in the litter box whenever she thinks my back is turned and has taken advantage of a couple of ill-timed phone calls to shove our disabled cat aside and steal food, but these are rare occurrences now. At first we thought we could train her out of her bad habits, but this is like thinking we could train her to be something other than a dog. We have come to accept that we are the ones who had to be retrained. And whenever we get distracted, she grabs a bit of cat food or poop. So we are working on staying focused. And Neko looks fabulous!