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30th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 30, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

To celebrate the last day of school, Chancellor Klein visited a school in Brooklyn and gave out popsicles to the students. Shame on you, Mr. Klein, contributing to the “childhood obesity epidemic.”

A few weeks ago I wrote about the effort, led by a former president, Bill Clinton, to purge soft drinks and snack foods from our nation’s schools. Mr. Klein and Mayor Bloomberg have already banished whole milk from Gotham’s school lunches,replacing it with skim milk. Now the child obesity discussion has taken an ominous new turn: City Councilman Joel Rivera, the chair of the Health Committee, proposes that the city’s zoning resolution be altered to limit the number of fast food restaurants in certain areas of the city.
This seems to be strong medicine for a disease that I’m not sure really exists.There is precious little evidence of any long term health danger posed by this “epidemic” either to children or adults. After all, as Americans are getting fatter, they are still also living longer. Nor is there any evidence that attempts to manipulate portions of the diets of children will really result in weight loss.

Similarly there is little research on possible negative consequences to brain development in children and other unforeseen consequences of a restrictive diet. Even some of the most vocal critics of whole milk recommend that children under two only drink whole milk rather than the fat reduced or skim varieties, since fat is necessary for healthy brain development.

But the hysteria continues. I believe that there WILL be an epidemic coming out of this, but it won’t be a glut of fat children. Rather we will see an epidemic of eating disorders, similar to what we have seen among young women in recent years.We are taking a pleasurable activity, necessary to our survival, eating, and spoiling it for a whole generation of children and their parents by causing unnecessary anxiety and alarm.

The author of “The Tyranny of Health, Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle,” Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, notes that the efforts to “coerce” children into “five a day” fruit and vegetable consumption has been shown to have no effect on the risk of major chronic disease, citing a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2004. What distresses Dr. Fitzpatrick is that the cost to our children will be the loss of the sensual enjoyment of eating and drinking,in much the same way “playing sport for pleasure is now being reduced to taking exercise for health.”

The logic behind all of the hysteria is faulty.The figures given by experts are deceptive. Pediatrician Vincent Iannelli, writing on a popular “advice”Web site, claims that a child who drinks three 8-oz. glasses of whole milk, rather than the same amount of 1% milk each day, a difference of 50 calories a glass, will gain an extra pound every three weeks. In five years, that comes to about 87 pounds. Even this, on the surface, is ludicrous.

But consider that even the 1% milk has 100 calories a glass. Expanding on Dr. Iannelli’s reasoning, the elimination of milk altogether, substituting non-caloric water, will lead to a savings of 261 pounds as compared to a child drinking whole milk during this five year period. Now when I grew up, almost all children drank whole milk, and three glasses a day, or even more, was typical.Yet I can’t recall many 261-pound children waddling around my neighborhood. In fact, that may be about what I weigh today, after 57 years of ice cream, steak, spare ribs, pasta, potatoes, chocolate, fast food, slow food, wine, Coca-Cola, and even milk.

When it comes to food, Americans find themselves living in a state of schizophrenia. On one hand, there is enormous popular interest in gourmet cooking, as evidenced by the rise of a new phenomenon, the celebrity chef. But while this gourmet renaissance flourishes, there is a simultaneous movement towards controlling everything Americans put in their mouths, an effort to mandate a “healthy” diet. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken are now offered as the cause of this ersatz “childhood obesity epidemic.”

Which brings us to Mr. Rivera and his proposed new zoning ordinance to restrict the location of fast food establishments. This proposal has brought much derision to Mr. Rivera, but I caution those of us, myself included, who enjoy an occasional Big Mac, or a Whopper, or some fried chicken or even a donut, not to be smug. There will be surprising support for the Rivera proposal. It will not be the first time that the zoning regulations will be misused to advance an unrelated non-land use decision. Just last year a routine zoning variance, needed to build a “big box” retail store in the Bronx, was rejected by the Council because it would be a non-union operation.

The Rivera proposal was already given a thumbs-up by the assistant health commissioner, Lynn Silver, and would anyone be surprised if Mr. Bloomberg ultimately signed on? He certainly has shown no hesitancy in using the power of government to dictate “healthy” behavior in the past.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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