Field Notes

News Source May Steer Perceived Solution to Childhood Obesity

Where you get your news could play a significant role in determining what you perceive as the best strategy for addressing childhood obesity.

According to a study led by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whether you believe the keys to combating childhood obesity are personal factors, such as individual behavior changes, or system-level factors, such as marketing and the environment, may depend on your primary news source.

Researchers examined the news media’s framing of childhood obesity and found that television news was more likely than other news sources to focus on individual behavior change as a solution, while newspapers were more likely to identify system-level solutions. The results are featured in Pediatrics.

“Overall, news stories consistently mentioned behavior change most often as a solution to the problem of childhood obesity; however, we identified noticeable differences in coverage by source. Newspaper articles more often mentioned changes affecting neighborhoods, schools, and the food and beverage industry, while television coverage often focused on individual child or parent behavior-oriented solutions,” says Colleen Barry, PhD, MPP, lead study author and an associate professor with the Bloomberg School’s department of health policy and management. “News media coverage patterns indicated that by 2003, childhood obesity was firmly on the news media’s agenda, remaining so until 2007.”

Barry, along with colleagues from Sarah Lawrence College, the Yale School of Public Health, and the University of Minnesota, analyzed the content of a random sample of news stories on childhood obesity published in 18 national and regional news sources in the United States from 2000 to 2009. Researchers measured whether a news story mentioned any potential solutions to childhood obesity and coded individual behavior change as well as system-oriented solutions such as changes affecting schools, neighborhoods, and food and beverage industry practices to combat obesity. Over the ten-year study period, researchers found the mention of solutions involving restrictions on the food and beverage industry, such as food and beverage taxes, vending machine restrictions, and advertising regulations, rose substantially in the early years of the study but declined sharply in recent years.

The most common individual-level solutions mentioned were behavior change related to diet (45%), such as parents serving their children more fruits and vegetables, and exercise (36%), such as making more time for family-oriented physical activities. Thirty-seven percent mentioned school-level changes as a solution to the problem, such as serving healthful school lunches and requiring gym or recess. Few news stories mentioned neighborhood-level changes, such as creating safe places for children to play or moving more grocery stores with healthful food options into poorer communities.

“We also found a decline in coverage of childhood obesity by the news media over the last few years. This decline would make sense if media attention had led to greater public awareness and greater public awareness had led to a decline in obesity rates,” Barry adds. “However, studies show that childhood obesity rates show no signs of declining. Thus, it is perhaps troubling that our results indicate reduced news media attention to the issue in the absence of having identified and implemented effective strategies for reducing childhood obesity rates.”

— Source: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health


Low-Income Families’ Diets Often Fall Short in Nutrition

More than seven in 10 low-income families in a new University of Nebraska-Lincoln study struggled to reach adequate levels of nutrition in their diet, researchers said.

When asked to recall their food choices from the previous day, only 28% of participating parents and caregivers reported meals with adequate amounts of nutrients such as vitamins A and C, protein, calcium, and iron, according to the study.

The work, which appears in Family & Consumer Sciences Research Journal, measured more than 100 low-income families’ eating patterns and also examined their meals’ nutritional value to determine how certain meal patterns could lead to more nutritious diets.

The results showed that many nutritional issues could be tackled if the whole family ate together more often, especially at breakfast time, says Wanda Koszewski, University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension associate professor of nutrition and health sciences and the study’s lead author.

While a majority of families in the study said they usually gathered for dinner at least five times per week, that number dropped to four or fewer times per week for breakfast and lunch. About 43% of study participants said their families ate breakfast together two or fewer times per week; the same percentage held true for lunch.

Researchers said increasing the frequency of family breakfasts would have big effects on important parts of the diet: The more often families ate breakfast together, the better their intake would be of foods from the milk group, fruits, and fruit juices, in particular.

“Nutrients we get from these food groups such as calcium, folate, potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin A are critical in the diets of young children and are often lacking in the diet of limited-income children,” Koszewski says. “Due to the fast-paced lifestyle of many families, not having breakfast together makes it difficult to meet these nutrients later in the day.”

The study adds new evidence to research on the relationship between regular family mealtimes and healthful lifestyles. Research has shown that in addition to contributing to more nutritious diets, having the family gather frequently for meals can help prevent any number of high-risk behaviors.

“Food and nutrition professionals need to look at not only foods being consumed in the household but to also examine who is eating together and how often,” she says. “They can work with families in problem solving how to improve the family meal time and frequency to help their children meet their nutritional needs.”

— Source: University of Nebraska-Lincoln