Health Watch

by Mary Anne Burkman and Peggy Biltz

Preserving Dairy Choices for Youngsters

Establishing healthy food habits in children, including the daily consumption of milk and dairy products, has long been a priority for the dairy industry. However, recent health trends and nutrition research findings are moving the health and nutrition communities to re-examine what we term “healthy diets” for children. The industry faces both opportunities and challenges in maintaining dairy’s essential role in these diets.
Over the past 30 years, the prevalence of obesity has more than doubled for preschool-age children and adolescents; it has more than tripled for children ages 6 to 11. 
This epidemic is linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Previously referred to as “adult onset,” type 2 diabetes now commonly occurs in children. If the current trend continues, 33 percent of boys and 38 percent of girls born in 2000 will develop diabetes sometime in their lives. The rates among Hispanic children will be even more startling, with a projected incidence of 50 percent.
Nutrition research shows that optimal health habits need to be cultivated early in life. A lack of these healthy habits is resulting in the “down-aging” of chronic disease conditions like hypertension, heart disease, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and obesity into early childhood and adolescence. For example, blood pressure has increased steadily in children over the past decade, in all age, ethnic and gender groups. Evidence of atherosclerosis, demonstrated by fatty streaks in the vessels, is seen in almost every North American child over age 3.  
Action has been taken quickly to improve the diets of our youth, though frequently it comes through legislation and regulation in lieu of heightened education efforts targeting the children and their parents.
Local school wellness policies were designed to empower schools to assess their unique district needs and define standards for healthy food and physical activity options on school campuses. In some cases, these standards of “healthy” have been defined based on individual foods and single “offending” components instead of a broader, more positive definition of “healthy” that recognizes the total nutrient contributions of a food.
In this kind of environment, the benefits of nutrient-rich dairy options like cheese, flavored milk and yogurt are called into question because of their relatively higher fat, sodium or sugar content.
Public health advocates and some legislators are lobbying tirelessly to impose stricter regulations on allowable advertising to children under age 12. Limiting the promotion of “junk” foods to children becomes a concern when foods in that pool of choices include previously perceived “healthy” foods. Example: the United Kingdom has targeted cheese as an unacceptable food to advertise to children.
Nutrition education must become a primary strategy in response to these childhood health issues; lifelong healthy food decisions cannot be legislated.
We suggest our partners in the dairy industry:
• Continue efforts to promote the growing body of research highlighting the multiple, varied health benefits of milk and dairy products and the critical role it plays in children’s diets.
• Collaborate with like-minded groups such as educators and health professionals to preserve access to a broad range of choices to meet nutritional needs, including milk and dairy products.
• Provide product options that are reduced in fat, sugar and sodium that meet the health needs of consumer segments.
Mary Anne Burkman is director of program services and Peggy Biltz is chief executive officer of the Dairy Council of California.