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Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going to Give Children a Healthy Start

Apr 5, 2016, 11:00 AM, Posted by Jamie Bussel

We want all kids to enter kindergarten at a healthy weight. And we believe it’s possible within the decade.

Children dance to a song during school.

Pregnancy through early childhood forms a critical window of opportunity for ensuring children get a healthy start to life.

In March, our program Healthy Eating Research published the most comprehensive examination to date of factors that can increase a child’s risk for obesity early in life. It shows that women who weigh more before they get pregnant, gain excess weight during pregnancy, or use tobacco while pregnant, are more likely to have children who become overweight or obese.

There are a variety of factors beyond prenatal health that also influence a child’s weight. Children form their taste preferences early in life, which is why it’s so important to ensure that they have access to a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains―right when they begin eating solid foods. Play and physical activity are also essential for optimal development. And there’s no reason for young children to drink sugary drinks—milk and water are best. All of these habits, if learned in early childhood, can last a lifetime.

The good news is the country as a whole is making progress in helping more kids start life at a healthy weight: Obesity rates among kids ages 2 to 5 have gone down in recent years.

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What’s Working to Help Kids Across America Eat Healthy?

Mar 9, 2016, 9:00 AM, Posted by Tina Kauh, Victoria Brown

Healthy Eating Research expands its commitment to equity through a new funding opportunity that reserves awards for innovative studies focused on rural, American Indian and Asian/Pacific Islander populations.

Cute preschool girl with bright striped top drinks a carton of milk in a school setting.

The students at Native American Community Academy, a member of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, believed their school should serve healthy lunches that incorporated foods indigenous to the Navajo culture. So, they set out to turn their idea into a reality.

The students had an ultimate goal in mind: convince their principal to hire a company that would provide these healthier, more traditional meals. But, first, they had to prove that this type of food service could be done.

They started with the basics. With a budget of no more than $2 per person, students headed to a local grocery store and purchased ingredients for a meal they would prepare on their own and serve to their teachers and administrators to demonstrate that offering healthy Native American food at school is both feasible and affordable.

Their menu for the day: vegetarian chili with beans, blue corn meal mush (a traditional Navajo dish), an organic fruit cup and a dish they called the “Beez Kneez,” which had squash, corn, green chili, garlic and onions. The meal received rave reviews. Not only did the principal agree to find a new food service company, she put the students in charge of the task.

This is just one of many stories that reinforce the important role schools play in teaching kids about nutrition and offering healthy meals, snacks and drinks. Among kids in underserved communities (like the students at Native American Community Academy), the role of schools is especially critical.

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Reversing Childhood Obesity with a Novel Approach

Mar 8, 2016, 10:45 AM, Posted by Christina Economos

ChildObesity180 is bringing the best elements of private sector thinking and scientific research in order to improve the health of kids in America. Here's how.

Children playing outside in Claremont, CA. Photo courtesy Tufts University

In 2009 it became clear to me that if our nation were truly serious about reversing the childhood obesity epidemic, a novel approach was required. The numbers remain just too unacceptably high in all groups and troubling disparities persist.

Enter Peter Dolan, Chairman of Tufts University Board of Trustees and former Chief Executive Officer of Bristol-Myers Squibb with a long-time commitment to health.  His background made him a complement to our work at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.  Along with Dr. Miriam Nelson, a professor of nutrition, we set out to develop a new method of addressing this complex problem, and co-founded ChildObesity180.

We created a collaborative model: bringing together nationally-renowned leaders from academia, nonprofits, business, and government (whom we refer to as Charter Members) to drive change on a national scale and substantially effect 5-to-12-year-olds across the country. We blend scientific rigor with insights from the private sector to develop, implement, evaluate and scale high-impact obesity prevention initiatives. 

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All Children Deserve to Grow Up at a Healthy Weight

Feb 8, 2016, 9:15 AM, Posted by Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

A year since RWJF committed $500 million toward reversing childhood obesity, early signs of progress show us that cross-sector partnerships and access to healthier options are key steps to ensure all children have opportunities to grow up at a healthy weight.

A teacher leads students in outdoor physical activity at Cleminson Elementary School in El Monte, California.

One year ago, I traveled to New York City to announce that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would commit $500 million toward the goal of helping all children grow up at a healthy weight by 2025, bringing our total investment on this issue to more than $1 billion.

The gym at West Side High was packed and brimming with excitement on announcement day. We cheered early signs of progress in places like Philadelphia, New York City and rural North Carolina, but all of us knew the job wasn’t done. Even in places reporting good news, progress usually wasn’t reaching low income families and communities of color equitably. Everyone agreed we had to push harder, both to accelerate the pace of progress and ensure that its benefits reached all our children.

Now it’s one year later, and I’m pleased to report that the optimism we felt proved justified.

Nationally, research shows that school lunches have improved, and both students and parents support the healthy changes. Physical education is now due for a major upgrade, thanks to new funding sources in the just-passed education law that replaced “No Child Left Behind.”

The latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s NHANES study confirm that we are on the right track. Obesity rates are down five percentage points among our youngest children and are holding steady among other age groups. 

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Healthier Cafeterias Thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

Jan 4, 2016, 10:25 AM, Posted by Monica Hobbs Vinluan

Five years ago, the U.S. launched an overhaul of nutrition standards for kids. How far have we come?

Signs of Progress: Florida

Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. When the law was passed five years ago, our President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey called it “a long-awaited victory.”

After five years, a lot truly has been accomplished. Ninety-seven percent of schools nationwide are meeting healthier standards for school meals. Significantly more schools are now offering lunches with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Putting healthier options on kids’ trays is an essential step, but the big challenge is making sure kids are eating and enjoying the meals. The good news is research shows that more students are taking fruit with their lunch, they’re eating more of their vegetables and entrees, and they generally like the new meals.

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Building Healthy, Safe, and Nurturing Schools

Sep 8, 2015, 4:44 PM, Posted by Jennifer Ng'andu

Promoting good health for kids early in life and in their learning environments can provide all children with the foundation they need to achieve their potential—now and throughout their lifetimes.

A group of children writing words on a blackboard with a teacher watching.

My aunt, a teacher in Connecticut, likes to say that her students carry more into their classrooms than just their backpacks. As some 50 million students enter the classrooms of our nation’s public elementary, middle and high schools this month for a new year of learning and growth, it’s important to remember that schools are more than places of academic achievement. They’re also key community institutions that influence the health and wellbeing of our nation’s children.

We already know that schools are important places to promote kids’ health. That’s why, for nearly a decade, RWJF has worked to improve food choices and increase physical activity in schools nationwide. Through our longtime support of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program—which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary—we have helped students in nearly 30,000 schools eat better and move more. This is important because research shows that health has an impact on kids’ academic and lifelong success.

But schools also teach kids social and emotional skills like sharing, cooperating, and engaging positively with each other and with adults. These are critical skills—a recent study shows that kids with better social emotional skills are more likely to graduate from college and secure good-paying jobs later in life. The opposite holds true as well. Kids with weaker social skills are more likely to drop out of high school, abuse drugs and alcohol or spend time in jail.

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How Food Marketing Can Help Kids Want What’s Good For Them

Aug 11, 2015, 2:45 PM, Posted by Victoria Brown

If we want to ensure that all children are able to grow up at a healthy weight, companies can play a role by continuing to reduce marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages and increase promotion of healthy choices.

A student drinking from a carton of milk.

When it comes to helping Americans eat healthier, the conversation often focuses on price and access. But, there’s a third, equally consequential, condition: desire. Preference is shaped by myriad factors and the effects of marketing and advertising are of paramount importance. Food and beverage companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to market their products, and their investments produce results: adults and kids are swayed by marketing.

A new report from the UConn Rudd Center for Food, Policy & Obesity reveals that a majority of the largest food and beverage companies are spending a disproportionate amount of money advertising their nutritionally poor products to Black and Hispanic consumers, especially youth. While food marketing is not inherently bad—it appears Sesame Street characters could be great “salespuppets” for fruits and veggies—it becomes a problem when it features unhealthy products known to contribute to obesity and other poor health outcomes. And, with rates of overweight/obesity higher among Black and Hispanic kids and teens, this type of business approach is especially harmful.

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New Report: Shifts in the Supermarket Aisles as Demand for Low-Calorie Options Grows

Jun 16, 2015, 10:50 AM, Posted by Victoria Brown

Research shows that supermarkets are responding to the growing demand for lower-calorie options, and that healthier options are good for their bottom line.

Supermarket aisle of juice packs and juice boxes.

At a very basic level, obesity is about an imbalance. Calories in and calories out need to be balanced, and if they’re not, we run the risk of gaining unhealthy weight. Now, that sounds simple, but of course we know it’s not. There’s so much that goes into the choices people, particularly children, are able to make about what they eat and drink and how much they move. The neighborhoods we live in―and where we buy foods and beverages―play an enormous role.

U.S. customers spend over $638 billion in supermarkets every year, so these stores have a major impact on what we all eat and drink every day. A recent report shows that, in keeping with recent changes to consumer demand, supermarkets are increasing their sales of lower-calorie items, and seeing financial benefits because of it.

Between 2009 and 2013, lower-calorie foods and beverages drove the bulk of supermarket sales growth, 59 percent, compared with just 41 percent for higher-calorie items. They also made up 58 percent of total supermarket sales.

This is great news, as it shows supermarkets are responding to the growing demand for lower-calorie options, and that their business performance is benefitting as a result.

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Making the Grade: An Assessment of the Healthy Weight Commitment

Jun 15, 2015, 10:00 AM, Posted by Ginny Ehrlich

Members of the food and beverage industry are taking steps to ensure that their investments towards the Healthy Weight Commitment are making a difference.

A mother and her daughter pushing full shopping carts outside a supermarket.

The food and beverage industries aren’t typically viewed as leaders in the movement to address the obesity crisis and alleviate food insecurity in the United States.

For that reason, the work of a consortium of 16 major food and beverage manufacturers and distributors is particularly interesting. The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF)—which includes such heavy-hitters as General Mills Inc, Kraft Foods Inc, and Nestle USA—is pioneering an innovative way to assess members’ philanthropic programs that target healthful eating and active living, to see just how much impact they’re having. The companies are trying to ensure that their investments--anything from support for local food banks to sponsorship of a 10k race promoting children growing up at a healthy weight-- really make a difference.

The ambitious effort involves a public-private partnership called Commitment to Healthy Communities (CHC) that teams the HWCF with the City University of New York School of Public Health. Using a specially designed framework, CUNY researchers will spend this summer evaluating which practices do and don’t work, on the program, company, and community levels.

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Q&A with Pau Gasol: The NBA All-Star's Health Advocacy Off-the-Court

Apr 20, 2015, 9:29 AM, Posted by Merlin Chowkwanyun

It may be NBA playoffs season, but the Gasol brothers are committed to promoting child health year round. RWJF Health & Society Scholar Merlin Chowkwanyun recently sat down with the Chicago Bulls' center to learn about his passion for health advocacy and how he's working to build a Culture of Health in the U.S. and abroad.

Gasol brothers greet each other on the basketball court. Image credit: Joe Murphy (NBAE/Getty)

Since moving to the Chicago Bulls last summer, NBA star Pau Gasol has been having one of the most sensational seasons of his basketball career. A two-time champion with the Los Angeles Lakers, the new Bulls starting center is entering the playoffs as the league leader in double doubles, averaging about 18 points and 12 rebounds per game. In February, he and his younger brother Marc Gasol (of the Memphis Grizzlies) made NBA history as the first siblings to start in the annual All-Star Game: Pau for the East team, Marc for the West.

The two have been equally active off the court. In 2013, after years of work with various philanthropic associations, Pau and Marc formed the Gasol Foundation. It focuses on child health and works towards "a world where all children will enter adulthood physically and mentally equipped to live successful, healthy and productive lives." The Foundation recently launched outreach projects in two areas with severe socioeconomic disadvantage. Vida! Health & Wellness in Boyle Heights (Los Angeles) provides parents and children with instruction in physical activity, physiology, and fitness; healthy cooking and eating; and psychological wellness. L'Esport Suma in South Badalona (Catalonia, Spain) uses sports to promote human development and social cohesion among participants. It is run in conjunction with Casal dels Infants, a long-standing NGO in the region.

Pau has always been a very visible 7-foot presence—literally and figuratively—in Memphis, Los Angeles, and now Chicago, the three cities where he has played. Among other things, that included visiting patients and working with the Children's Hospital Los Angeles and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and around the world, raising awareness of refugees' plight as a UNICEF ambassador. In 2012, the NBA recognized these and many other efforts with its J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, given to only one player a season. He recently was named one of ten finalists for the NBA's Community Assist Award, and fans can vote for him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram by typing #NBACommunityAssist and #PauGasol. 

Each year, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's site complete a "'knowledge exchange" project designed to foster communication among the general public, academic researchers, and population health practitioners. As someone who grew up in Los Angeles, I cheered for Pau during his seven seasons with the Lakers but admired him just as much for what he did beyond the game. For my project this year, I wanted to interview Pau about his and Marc's plans because it seemed the Gasol Foundation's goals dovetailed with those of RWJF's Culture of Health initiative in many respects.

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