Tag Archives: nutrition

How does food labeling affect consumer choice?

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

If you’ve ever wondered about the real impact of those little black-and-white nutrition labels, or felt that perhaps food labeling could be more meaningful, consider the results of a new study, published recently in The American Journal of Public Health.

Image by Tojosan via flickr.

Image by Tojosan via flickr.

A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health wanted to know what makes people change their habits – specifically, low-income black adolescents. In 2012 – the most recent year of CDC data – obesity was more prevalent among both African-Americans and low-income groups than the general population. (But remember that the relationship between income and obesity varies by poverty level, gender and race is a complicated one.)

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Food deserts: Just one facet of an obesogenic world

Joe Rojas-Burke

About Joe Rojas-Burke

Joe Rojas-Burke is AHCJ’s core topic leader on the social determinants of health, working to help journalists broaden the frame of health coverage to include factors such as education, income, neighborhood and social network. Send questions or suggestions to joe@healthjournalism.org or @rojasburke.

Image by kardboard604 via flickr.

Image by kardboard604 via flickr.

It seems pretty far-fetched that bringing a supermarket to a disadvantaged neighborhood could, in a matter of months, turn back the tide of obesity.

So I wasn’t exactly shocked by the study in Health Affairs (AHCJ members have free access) this week finding that the addition of a supermarket made little impact on nearby residents’ diet or weight gain. The authors compared two demographically similar Philadelphia neighborhoods. Both were considered food deserts, but one received a new 41,000-square-foot-supermarket in 2009. Six months later, the authors found no significant difference in body mass index or daily fruit and vegetable intake between residents of the two neighborhoods. (In the neighborhood with the new supermarket, most residents didn’t even adopt it as their main store.)

The link between food deserts and obesity has always been somewhat tenuous. For instance, having a nearby supermarket or grocery made no difference in the amount of fruits and vegetables people ate or the overall quality of their diets in one of the largest observational studies to date. More recently, researchers analyzed data from 97,678 adults in the California Health Interview Survey and found “no strong evidence that food outlets near homes are associated with dietary intake or BMI.” They figured it’s because most people go by car and don’t limit their shopping to nearby stores.

News outlets tended to cast the latest study as a policy fail for the Obama administration. Obama’s $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative is based on the idea that making fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible in underserved neighborhoods will help reverse diet-related health problems.

I’m not sure that a six-month pilot study on a single store is the final word. In a thorough report by Sarah Corapi at The News Hour, study author Steven Cummins says he remains convinced that better food stores are needed in many disadvantaged neighborhoods: Continue reading

Health care quality study: Good news, bad news and in between

Joseph Burns

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at joseph@healthjournalism.org.

Image by thor_mark via flickr.

Image by thor_mark via flickr.

Health plans had poor results last year on reducing the use of antibiotics and on ensuring that chemically dependent patients received recommended and timely follow-up care, according to the State of Health Care Quality Report 2013 from the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) released last week.

Health plans had good results last year on getting more children to have their body mass index (BMI) measured and get referrals for nutrition counseling, NCQA reported.

By showing trends in how managed care plans deliver care, this annual report is a rich source of data for health care journalists. Continue reading

Pa. bill would require disclosure of food stamp purchases

Felice J. Freyer

About Felice J. Freyer

Felice J. Freyer is a member of AHCJ's board of directors, serving as vice chair of the organization's Right to Know Committee. She is a medical writer for The Providence (R.I.) Journal.

Food stamps

Photo by cosmocatalano via Flickr

A Pennsylvania congressman last week filed a bill that would require retailers to report which items are bought with food stamps.

The proposed “SNAP Transparency Act,” sponsored by Republican Rep. Tom Marino, would require the secretary of agriculture to establish a uniform reporting system under which retailers would track “the complete range, identities, sizes, quantities, and costs of particular food items” purchased with benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

If passed, the legislation could give journalists and advocates access to long-sought information about the food purchases of SNAP recipients, at a time of growing concern about their access to healthy foods and about obesity and related health problems among the poor. Currently the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not have the authority to collect such information.

The act would address one of two issues raised in a recent letter to Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack from AHCJ and six other organizations representing journalists and open-government advocates. Continue reading

Experts stress lifestyle changes as prevention, treatment for diabetes #ahcj13

Diabetes is prevalent in the United States, and the numbers continue to balloon.

In a Health Journalism 2013 session focusing on type 2 diabetes, a panel of experts discussed the threats of the disease, its growth and possible treatment. The panel was moderated by Tennesseean reporter Tom Wilemon.

Rich Siegel, M.D., co-director of Tufts Medical Center’s Diabetes Clinic, said that the threats of diabetes and obesity – or “diabesity” – in adolescents and young adults is a 21st century time bomb. According to a 2012 study from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, diabetes among adolescents rose 23 percent from 2000 to 2008.

Siegel said the keys to combating type 2 diabetes are diet, activity and education. Medication plays a role, with both injectable and oral medication available. He added that, after 90 years of use, insulin is still the most effective treatment. Surgery can even be an option, but not a first option.

“The idea of surgery is towards the bottom of the list,” Siegel said.

David M. Nathan, M.D., director of the MGH Diabetes Center and Clinical Research Center and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, cited a 2012 Centers for Disease control study showing that 26 million people in the United States have diabetes, a majority of them with type 2 diabetes. This is about 8 percent of the population. He added that nearly 2 million cases are diagnosed a year and 72 million American are pre-diabetic. According to an American Diabetes Association, $245 billion is spent every year on the disease.

In treating type 2 diabetes, Nathan stressed the importance of treating for the long haul, focusing on prevention and avoiding complications down the road. He cited a Diabetes Prevention Program Outcomes Study that showed that lifestyle changes reduced the development of type 2 diabetes by 58 percent, more than medication or a placebo.

Osama Hamdy, M.D., Ph.D., the medical director of Joslin’s Obesity Clinical Program and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, estimated that the cost to treat diabetes will reach half a trillion dollars in the next 12 years. He also suggested lifestyle intervention for diabetes prevention and treatment.

Reuters explains Big Food’s remarkable lobbying success

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Investigating for Reuters, Duff Wilson and Janet Roberts analyzed lobbying records and found that, in the past few years, the food industry has dramatically stepped up its spending in Washington and, they write, “largely dominated policymaking – pledging voluntary action while defeating government proposals aimed at changing the nation’s diet.” They give examples.

After aggressive lobbying, Congress declared pizza a vegetable to protect it from a nutritional overhaul of the school lunch program this year. The White House kept silent last year as Congress killed a plan by four federal agencies to reduce sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children.

And during the past two years, each of the 24 states and five cities that considered “soda taxes” to discourage consumption of sugary drinks has seen the efforts dropped or defeated.

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

That success has come through what the authors imply is a sort of big-tobacco model, in which the industry combines promises of self-regulation with huge amounts of money, and thus creates an irresistible package for lawmakers. For a blow-by-blow on how the lobbying muscle swayed the decision-makers in recent battles, I strongly recommend you read the full piece, which draws heavily from both data and extensive interviews. Particularly interesting? The examples of how the Citizens United decision has impacted far more than just election politics.

Battle against childhood obesity is complicated

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Maureen O’Hagan and her colleagues at The Seattle Times have put together a sprawling package of stories on the fight against childhood obesity in their new series, “Feeling the Weight.” We’ll break it down story-by-story.

Kids battle the lure of junk food
Local agencies are spending millions to provide healthy alternatives to Seattle-area youth, but they — to say nothing of the youth themselves — are faced with a seemingly insurmountable deluge of tasty treats that tempt teens at every turn.

State still seeks winning strategy against childhood obesity
For a decade, Washington’s anti-obesity strategy has focused on providing kids with access to health alternatives.

So far, the results are discouraging. A push to put more fresh produce in poor neighborhoods’ corner stores, for instance, is struggling. And recent studies suggest the proliferation of farmers markets has done little to change diets or behavior. The number of overweight and obese kids continues to climb.

In other words, we might be spending a whole lot of money on efforts that miss the mark.

How to help your kids lose weight healthfully
The trick, she writes, is to focus on healthy behavior rather than on weight loss.

Parents stand between kids and junk food
O’Hagan’s profiles of parents of obese children shatter a few stereotypes and illustrate just how complex the issue is.

What readers had to say about childhood-obesity topic
Readers weighed in with advice, criticism, observations and more.


Covering Obesity: A Guide for Reporters

Covering ObesityThe prospect of covering such a broad, engaging and important topic as obesity can be overwhelming. This guide, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is designed to help journalists cover a wide range of stories, whether writing on deadline or researching a multipart series. It offers assistance on calculating body mass index, finding obesity statistics on the state level, gauging the quality of school district wellness policies, finding innovative school nutrition policies and much more.

Series brings readers’ perspectives to obesity story

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Weight loss and obesity stories are a pillar of health journalism and a flashpoint for reader interest, but they have been so thoroughly covered by local and national stories that they generally only hit the headlines when new treatments or alarming obesity statistics bubble up to the fore.

ozPhoto by bookgrl via Flickr

With that in mind, we bring you The (Raleigh, N.C.,) News & Observer‘s “Frontiers of Fat” series, which brings together the personal weight-loss perspectives of readers and reporters and up-to-date reporting that explores the current state of nutrition research. By adding local voices and centering the whole thing around a New Year’s Day kickoff, the newspaper created a way to get back to the fundamentals of the nutrition discussion while still creating something newsworthy and relevant.

Speaking of relevance, the newspaper is keeping momentum of the series going with updates on both its staff and reader-contributed weight loss blogs, accompanied by timely yet context-rich news stories. On the landing page, the updates are accompanied by interactive components like a calorie counter and a BMI calculator.

The series also snagged Associated Press Managing Editor’s Innovator of the Month honors for March.

Health series tries to reach those often left out

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Kate Dailey of Newsweek has teamed up with Public Radio International for a 10-part series, “DIY Checkup: Taking Control of Our Health.” The project looks at “what people can do to live better, no matter their genetics, history, or economic status.”

Dailey, in a blog post about the series, recognizes that some of the standard pieces of advice, such as going to the gym for exercise or eating fresh fruits and vegetables, are not relevant for significant parts of the population. People who work on their feet all day and people who live in food deserts are not getting the messages in a way that make them relevant to their lives.

As Dailey says, “the language that doctors and journalists often use to talk about personal health often leaves many people out.”

Part one of the series lists things people can do to significantly improve their health. Listen to part one:

Food makes up a quarter of Calif. household waste

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

California Watch wraps up its three-part series on hunger in that state with a look at how much food is wasted and why.

Reporters found that tons of food goes to waste when restaurants dump it rather than donate it to distribution centers, when farmers plow over fruits and and vegetables in the fields and when grocery stores throw away food.

Discarded food represents a quarter of all waste tossed away by California households.

The project, in collaboration with the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, includes a look at the five largest food retailers and whether they donate to food banks and other distribution centers.