Because rates of childhood and adolescent obesity are dramatically increasing, “this could be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents,” a leading nutritionist told the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) annual meeting here Tuesday (Feb. 5).

ICCR is a coalition of religious investors — including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — that seeks to leverage members’ investments to effect positive change in companies’ corporate behavior.

“The trend of obesity is quite dramatic,” said Dr. Gwen Wang, a professor at the Columbia University School of Public Health, noting that the rate of childhood obesity in the United States has tripled since 1980.

The reasons for the epidemic are pretty simple, said Dr. William Dietz, former director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control. “A general decline in physical activity and changing eating habits” are the causes and “soft drinks, sugared cereals and fast foods are prime culprits,” he said.

What specific characteristics of the food supply are producing this? “The data, which is overwhelming, Dietz said, indicates overconsumption” of processed meats (such as fast food burgers and sandwiches), sugared drinks, solid/saturated fats (such as potato chips and French fries), sodium and added sugars (primarily sweetened cereals).

The result is what Wang called “energy imbalance” — a simple enough concept in which energy (calorie) intake exceeds energy expenditure. But the “connections and influences that go into it creates a bewildering ‘spaghetti map,’” she added.

Religious investors and public policy advocates are combatting the childhood obesity epidemic in at least two ways:

  • Calling for curbs on the marketing of unhealthy foods to children
  • Calling for better disclosure information on food packing so consumers know exactly what they’re eating.

“In 2005, the Institute on Medicine found that current advertising practices are out of balance with healthy diets,” said Jennifer Harris of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

Armed with that and other data, food policy advocates persuaded the food industry to adopt its own guidelines called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) in 2008.

Only, the self-regulation didn’t work. Advertising of unhealthy food to children peaked in 2004, then declined until 2007. But since then, one year before CFBAI was implemented, advertising  aimed at children has increased by 10 percent and to adolescents by 27 percent.

 “Unfortunately, as we have been successful in persuading companies to reduce their marketing to children, they have simply ramped up their marketing to ‘tweens’ and adolescents,” Harris said, adding that advocates are focusing their efforts on reduced marketing/advertising of the three most heavily advertised unhealthy foods: pre-sweetened cereal, fast food and sugary drinks.

“Clearly there’s not enough progress when companies continue to push unhealthy foods on kids and teens,” Harris said.

A relatively new federal policy approach to combating childhood obesity is food packaging and restaurant menu labeling, said Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition and Policy Consultants in Washington, D.C.

A little-known but important provision of the Affordable Care Act, such nutritional information is essential in efforts to educate parents and other consumers. The most notable success to date, Fox said, is dramatically improved nutritional information in public school foods. “Kids consume about 15 percent of their food at school,” Fox said, “so it’s critical that we start there.”

Some private sector companies have made strides, Fox said, among them McDonalds — the first fast food chain to openly display nutritional information about its menu choices. Others who have led their industries in providing more nutritional information about their products are Wal-Mart and Disney.

“Industry-developed standards still contain too many loopholes and too many industry groups have ramped up their lobbying to thwart packaging and menu disclosure,” Fox said, but companies are increasingly realizing that “sales growth is higher in lower calorie products. They’re just very concerned about the bottom line and so risk-averse,” she said.

But restaurants have been more cooperative with packaging and menu nutritional information for a far more practical reason, Fox said. “They’d rather have a single national standard than a patchwork of local standards.”