Monday, May 3, 2010

Interview of Toni Fitzgerald about Childhood Obesity in USA

oni Fitzgerald is a longtime United States writer and editor who has covered everything from college football to television ratings to teddy bears. She has been writing a parenting column for the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Sentinel for the past three years and last year began blogging about her experiences with her two children, ages 5 and 1. She has been cited as a media and parenting expert by, Playboy, trade publications, and various American and Canadian radio stations. Toni and her husband balance work, t-ball practices and cheering on the St. Louis Cardinals in their spare time. You can read her writings in her blog: Because I Said So
I wanted to do interview because these days, I can feel that obesity is becoming a growing problem in South Asia. However, the sad thing is that very few people bother about it in this part of the world. So, I felt that the interview of a parenting expert like Toni Fitzgerald would be helpful for parents of South Asia to get some idea about the seriousness of obesity. I sent the interview questions by email.

Here is the interview for the readers:

Razib Ahmed: I do not live in USA and I am in a country of South Asia (Bangladesh). Here, malnutrition is the major problem among our children. How is the condition of childhood obesity in USA?
Toni Fitzgerald: Childhood obesity is a major problem in the United States. According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, childhood obesity has more than tripled over the past three decades, to 19.6 percent of kids ages 6 to 11 and 18.1 percent of kids 12 to 19.
The worst part is that it's a preventable tragedy, one that could be solved with more education not just for children but also their parents.
We have seen many societal changes over the years that have fed this problem, so to speak -- kids are on their own more and thus have a chance to indulge themselves when mom and dad aren't looking; fatty foods are heavily marked to kids; parents are busy and don't cook as many healthy home meals; fast food consumption has risen; and physical education programs have been cut at many schools.
You put that all together and it's quite literally a recipe for overeating.

Razib Ahmed: You recently wrote, “It's great that we're trying to fight childhood obesity, but the responsibility really lies with mom and dad to ensure that Junior isn't getting too many Happy Meals. It's not McDonald's fault if I choose to go there.” Do you think that there are enough healthy alternatives to fast food for parents? What about the price issue?
Toni Fitzgerald: There are a lot of alternatives to fast food. If people don't believe that, they're simply not looking hard enough or they're lazy, and I sometimes include myself in that group.
Even at McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King now, there are healthy substitutes for high-calorie side dishes -- you can swap fries for orange slices or yogurt, at no extra cost.
If you plan ahead, as our family tries to do, you can bring carrots and high-fiber granola bars to snack on during trips instead of buying cookies and candy at rest stops.
And despite what many people think, healthy food can be cheaper if you take the time to look. It's just 49 cents a pound for a bunch of bananas, but you'll pay $4 for six freshly baked cookies at our local supermarket.

Razib Ahmed: Happy Meal Toy is perhaps just a tip on the iceberg as far promotional activities of McDonald's are concerned. Do you think that more restrictions should be put on fast food giants about promoting frying and high calorie foods to children and teenagers?
Toni Fitzgerald: I believe that we should enforce truth in advertising; fast-food restaurants should not be able to make any false claims in their ads. I know my 5-year-old son takes what he sees on television as the Bible truth!
Still, I believe it's up to parents to police what our children are seeing and believing. I do not think it is McDonald's fault if my son is drawn in by its advertising. It is up to my husband and me to enforce limits on what food is acceptable and what is not. I think in many ways we're blaming fast-food restaurants for the obesity problem because we're too reluctant to blame ourselves for turning a blind eye to this problem.
The bottom line is that our kids are our responsibility, and we can limit their exposure to advertising and their consumption of junk food, even if it's not always easy.

Razib Ahmed: US first lady Michelle Obama has recently taken an initiative to combat obesity. DO you have any special suggestion or advice for her?   
Toni Fitzgerald: I think this is exactly the sort of thing we need in the fight against childhood obesity.
Ms. Obama is emphasizing education and practical solutions instead of pointing fingers. I hope she continues to be a great example to our nation's youth by farming the White House garden and showing off her fabulous pecs (the result of years of exercise). The Obamas manage to stay healthy without completely depriving themselves of the good things in life, like the occasional ice cream cone. And believe me, my kids and I indulge in our fair share!

Razib Ahmed: Some fast food companies can sell their food items in school cafeterias. What is your view about it?
Toni Fitzgerald: I do not think fast food has a place in schools for kids under age 18. I'm especially opposed to soda and candy, with their completely empty calories, being available to them.
If that had been available to me at that age, I'm sure I would have eaten way more junk than was good for me.
Some schools argue that they need the money that's brought in from fast-food partnerships and vending machines -- but is it really worth sacrificing kids' health? I don't think so. If you offer kids healthy alternatives, they will eat them; however, if you offer soda alongside milk, they may be inclined to drink the soda. This is another case where I believe it is up to the adults to set the limits for the children.

Razib Ahmed: Briefly say something about your journalism career.
Toni Fitzgerald: I've covered many topics over the years, but writing about parenting is more than a vocation; for me, it is a passion. My family is the best thing in my life, and I'm constantly amazed at how easy it is to connect with people when writing about children.

Razib Ahmed: You are also blogging and using Facebook to generate conversation. How do you feel about the new media?
Toni Fitzgerald: New media offers parents a chance at community building that generations before us did not enjoy. The first few years of parenting can be very isolating, before your kids begin school or join the soccer team, when much of your life is spent at home taking care of them. Through blogging and Facebook, I've connected with many parents who would not otherwise have been able to share their joys and frustrations.
My mother was a single parent, and as she recently pointed out to me, something like Facebook would have been a godsend 25 years ago, just so she'd have known she was not alone. I think we're just starting to tap into the benefits of new media for parents -- though as the columns below can attest, I have mixed feelings on whether new media is always a good thing.

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