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Junk Food Damaging American Children

Spoiling the children with high-fat, high-sugar foods has been proven scientifically unsafe, as American researchers reveal that kids and teens in the US are becoming fatter and more at risk for a series of diseases.

Dr Chaoyang Li of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr Stephen Cook, of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York, and colleagues examined data from several national surveys of health and fitness taken by the Federal Government. Information was collected from more than 22,000 two- to 19-year-olds.

What they found is worrisome: the abdominal fat of children and teenagers has increased significantly over the years, putting them at a greater risk of heart diseases and diabetes. Since the 1990s, abdominal fat has increased by more than 65 per cent, as have obesity rates.

However, abdominal fat is a reason for alarm not necessarily from an esthetic point of view – it is more clearly and strongly linked with disease than general body fat is. The American researchers found that 10.5 per cent of boys and girls had too much abdominal fat in 1999, as measured by waist circumference, while in 2004, it grew to 17.4 per cent of boys and 17.8 per cent of girls.

Dr. Cook commented the following: “Those increases only grow more alarming as you tease out specific age groups over longer periods of time. For example, between the 1988-1994 data and the 1999-2004 data, the largest relative increase in the prevalence of abdominal obesity occurred among two- to five-year old boys - 84 per cent - and 18- to 19-year-old girls - 126 per cent.”

The researchers also caution parents and caregivers that a watchful eye can nip potential health problems in the bud. "Kids, teens and adults who have early stages of atherosclerosis in their arteries can have a healthy cardiovascular system again," Dr Cook said. "Older adults who have plaque build-up have a much harder battle, especially if the plaque has calcified."

This doesn’t mean that you should weight and measure your child daily, but that you can keep an eye on the little one’s belly. It’s as easy as that. A five-year-old that has the protruding belly of an adult should raise concern. There’s no need for embarrassment though. Dr. Cook explains how the abundance of high-fat, high-sugar foods, especially foods containing high-fructose corn syrup, present on the market these days, “could be predisposing children not only to become fatter, but disproportionately fat around the middle”.

The major use of corn syrup, rich in glucose, is in commercially prepared foods as a sweetener and for its moisture-retaining properties which keep foods moist and maintain freshness. As a sucrose replacement, its sweetness is often insufficient and it is used in conjunction with high intensity sweeteners. It is used in a variety of food products, from candy bars to ketchup and hamburger buns. Studies suggest average daily fructose consumption has increased 25 per cent over the past 30 years.

The researchers also found an increase in body mass index (BMI), a weight-to-height ratio widely used as a measure of being overweight or obese. The percentage of six- to 11-year-olds with high BMI scores increased about 25 per cent between 1999 and 2004. The percentage with abdominal fat increased over the same period to 19.2 per cent from 14.2 per cent. The increases in belly fat occurred in all age, racial and ethnic groups.

"The good thing is, we know that in kids [the health effect of abdominal fat] is completely reversible, if we can get them to exercise more and to adjust their diet and adopt a healthy lifestyle," Dr. Cook says.