Kids battle the lure of junk food

This is Part 2 of a series that examines the epidemic of childhood obesity in the state of Washington.

Part 1: State still seeks winning strategy against childhood obesity

Part 3: Parents stand between kids and junk food

NATHAN STOLTZFUS has a problem.

It starts first thing in the morning, when he catches five or 10 minutes of TV just before heading out the door to Northshore Junior High.

"There's these commercials for Cookie Crisp cereal or Pop-Tarts," he says. "They show some really happy kid eating them."

Over at school, he makes his way to homeroom as the smell of French toast drifts from the cafeteria.

At lunchtime, he sees a sign over the ice cream and cookies. It says, "Treat yourself today."

He tries to focus on his veggie-filled sandwich. But invariably, one of his buddies will jump up for another run through the lunch line. "Who wants to come with me to get some cookies?" the kid'll ask.

To Nathan, this innocent question is a trap. As the heaviest kid at the table, he tells himself, keep your eyes on the veggies. But he also wants to fit in.

"It's very tempting," Nathan says. "You feel like you almost have to do it in order to be friends."

Now, Nathan's just 14, but he's no slouch. He's articulate, creative, has a good group of friends and seems to take time to think about what he's doing. He's dedicated, too, singing for years with the Northwest Boychoir.

He's also been overweight for most of his life. To him, it feels like a curse.

And the pressure never subsides. There's the school's annual pie day to celebrate "pi"; there's the group Slurpee runs after school; the torment of his skinny brother devouring Oreos; the weekend trips to the mall.

"A couple weeks ago, there was like 16 of us. One of the guys said, 'Oh my gosh you have to try this ice cream,' " he recalls.

What's a kid to do?

Right now, leaders here are trying hard to help. In the past decade, local agencies have been awarded at least $53 million in grants and other funding to combat obesity — most of it in the past year. They've enlisted hundreds of partners in this effort, and they're using some of the most newfangled approaches.

Within the next year, for example, they'll have spent at least $1.8 million getting healthy produce into corner stores. In the next two years, another $276,000 will be spent on building school gardens. Money will go to rejigger P.E. curriculums, train cafeteria workers and try to get kids to walk to school.

Still, all this effort will miss one of the biggest battlegrounds of all: what's going on inside Nathan's head.

"Treat yourself today," the sign in the cafeteria commands. Just say no, Nathan tries to tell himself. Let's call this the Temptation Complication.

It's a problem for Nathan. It's a problem for tens of thousands of overweight kids in Washington. And it's a problem for all of us.

It'll take a lot more than school gardens to dig our way out of this one.

PEOPLE WHO work on childhood obesity often talk about how different the world was a generation ago.

When she was a kid, University of Washington researcher Donna Johnson told me, soda was a special treat. Now, sugar-sweetened beverages are just a few quarters away, in the school vending machine. In surveys of Washington adolescents, about 40 percent said they drank at least one soda yesterday.

When he was a kid, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler says, there weren't coffee shops on every corner selling super-duper, fat-and-sugar, grande frappa-yummies. There wasn't the cacophony of chips and cookies at every gas station.

When I was a kid, I recall, we ate pretty much what our parents ate. Now, vast product lines are designed just for youngsters: the Go-Gurts and Lunchables and drink pouches. Experts say more new food products are introduced each year for kids than for adults. And guess what: Studies show kid food has more sugar than the adult version.

And don't even get me started on the "fruit leathers" and "fruit snacks" with nary a drop of juice.

"When I was a kid," snickers Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "they were called jelly beans."

This special kid food is sold on special TV stations created just for kids by special advertising execs who study youth culture as if they were researching a doctoral thesis.

Meanwhile, kids are noshing practically nonstop. "Your product doesn't have to be for a meal anymore," says Laurie Demeritt, president of the Bellevue market-research firm the Hartman Group. "Now there are 10 different 'eating occasions' throughout the day."

What we have here is a supply problem. Food is everywhere. That means temptation is everywhere. If Nathan makes healthy choices half the time, it's probably not enough.

But the Temptation Complication has another layer, one that's older than Go-Gurt and Nickelodeon and Mountain Dew. It has to do with biology.

PATSY TREECE says her daughter, Hannah, has a "face that radiates kindness." She's right. Her eyes are a beautiful brown; her smile shines.

At age 13, Treece says, Hannah's the kind of kid who'll stop to help if someone gets hurt on the playground.

She also has an appetite that won't quit.

At dinner, she'll ask for seconds, even thirds.

"I'm really, really hungry," she explains.

Well, maybe not hungry exactly.

"It's just that if I see something good," she sighs, "I automatically pick it up and eat it."

Like a lot of us, she gets pleasure from food. But afterward, she also feels pain.

Hannah's twin brother is slim and athletic, but her mom is also overweight. Treece has tried different diets with Hannah. She's tried sports. Delay. Portion control, using 100-calorie snack packs.

"She'll have a couple of them," Treece says.

Don't even mention Flamin' Hot Cheetos. "She would kill somebody to get a package of those," Treece says. "It's almost like a compulsion."

No kidding. Remember the old ad campaign, "Betcha can't eat just one"? That was Lay's Potato Chips. The same company makes Hannah's Cheetos.

Some people simply can't stop. There's science to prove it, says former FDA Commissioner Kessler.

Here's a guy who fought Big Tobacco. He's a doctor; he knows what's healthful. Yet until recently, he could come undone over a chocolate-chip cookie.

"I have suits in every size," he says ruefully.

Our desire to eat doesn't originate in the stomach, really. We're wired to crave salt, sugar and fat, Kessler says. You see it in laboratory rats, too. They'll brave the possibility of electric shocks to keep eating their junk food. Even bacteria swim to sugar.

There's more.

"We used to think people were lazy or it was a question of willpower," Kessler explains. "I can now show you the (brain) scans. The vast majority of people who have a hard time controlling their eating have excessive activation of the brain's emotional core."

When you eat things like cookies or Cheetos you get an immediate reward. You feel good. Your brain actually changes when you eat that stuff, Kessler explains. The neurocircuitry gets rewired.

Stumble across a "food cue" — maybe an ad for cereal, or the smell of French toast — and suddenly, your brain lights up. Your thoughts slip into those newly-laid tracks and can't get off, like the way your skis follow along in a cross-country trail. Your brain, Kessler says, gets "hijacked." And the new pathway is reinforced further.

Scientists say it's not exactly that we're addicted to food, but it sure is an awful lot like that.

Problem is, these food cues are everywhere. "We're living in a food carnival," Kessler says.

So we're not just fighting temptation like Nathan. We're battling our very biology, that automatic response that makes Kessler crumble at the thought of cookies and Hannah unshakable in the face of orangey-red salt.

Let's call this the Cheeto Compulsion. Betcha can't eat just one.

HILARY BROMBERG, strategy director at the Seattle brand/communications firm egg, says they sometimes put clients through a little exercise: Talk about your food history.

"They enter almost a trance state," she says. "They say, my grandmother made me this, or my mother made me this. There's this visceral attachment."

Eating, in other words, isn't some sort of clinical calculation of calories. Most people aren't thinking, Gee, I better have carrots instead of cake because I didn't get my five servings of vegetables today.

"Food is a source of sensual pleasure," Bromberg explains. "The emotions around food are profound."

She's saying this as a marketing maven. She's also saying this as someone who studied cognitive neuroscience at Harvard and MIT.

Nathan's mother, Susan Stoltzfus, knows this, too.

"Food has been that comfort or that source of consolation or that sense of belonging," she says. It's immediate, too — unlike losing weight, which requires forgoing that sense of pleasure over and over and over.

"How do you live for that delayed gratification?" she wonders.

Nathan and Hannah might not explain it the same way. But they understand.

Food is pleasure. Food is family, culture and tradition. Food is love.

Let's call this the Comfort Connection.And I'm willing to bet it's within arm's reach right now.

MARLENE SCHWARTZ, a clinical psychologist at Yale University, suggested a little experiment. Ask a roomful of people, Who thinks junk-food marketing works? All the hands will go up.

Ask, does it work on you? The hands will vanish.

"I think people decide, once it's in their pantry, it's no longer junk food," she says.

Talk about getting inside your head. These marketing guys can put an idea in there and you don't even know it.

And it's growing even more sophisticated.

Food producers have long hired experts to survey thousands of consumers at once. But in the past decade or so, the behind-the-scenes work has become even more stunning in its scope and highly particular in its findings.

Some of the topics food marketers have studied recently: mother/daughter baking rituals; parents' stress level on car trips; the habits of kids at sporting events; how preschoolers are using their parents' smartphones; the traits of parents who are strict versus parents who are more permissive — and what it all means for their kids' eating habits.

There's an entirely new genre of marketing and advertising firms, in fact, that focus on youth culture.

Meanwhile, in the past decade or two, says Demeritt of the Bellevue market-research firm, food-marketing companies also started going directly into people's homes. Shopping with them. Asking detailed personal questions. It's called ethnographic research, and it's being done in many cases by social anthropologists. Hordes of psychologists have been enlisted, as well, to better get inside consumers' heads.

The result is that marketers know exactly how families eat, what they eat and why. They know what makes them keep coming back, even when they know it's probably less nutritious.

Take Go-Gurt, for instance. It's one of the most successful kid foods ever. Moms are doling it out for breakfast, yet it's got more sugar per ounce than Coke. Yoplait sells $129 million worth of this stuff a year. Unnatural-hued goo in a squeezable tube!

How did Go-Gurt come to be? Really good research. In phone interviews, typical consumers would say breakfast was a sit-down, family affair. But when General Mills hired an anthropologist to spend time with ordinary families, she discovered they were actually eating on the go. A niche was identified: Families could use something portable. And squeezable yogurt was born.

It appeals to a kid's taste buds for sure. But the makers of Go-Gurt aren't selling that, per se. They're selling fun, coolness.

Remember Kessler and the way food activates the emotional core? Bingo.

The opportunities to hit that emotional core are greater than ever. Advertisers can reach kids on their own cable channels. They can reach them on the Internet — for a lot less money. At the same time, they'll learn even more about them.

Marketers know the search terms consumers enter, the information they put on social-networking sites, the pages they view and countless other metrics. Companies are prohibited from collecting personal data on users less than 13 without parental permission, but a Wall Street Journal investigation found even youngsters' online activities were being tracked, and in some cases offered for sale to advertisers.

"Youth in 2010 will be the first generation in the post-digital economy the retailer will know by name," one marketing report said last year.

Check it out. There are Go-Gurt pages on Facebook. Go-Gurt videos on YouTube. There's even a Go-Gurt game. Betcha can't quit at one.

LAST DECEMBER, Demeritt's firm conducted a nationally representative survey about weight issues. Forty-two percent of people said childhood obesity is a big problem. But among the same people, only 3 percent agreed it was a problem in their family.

"It shows you why people don't really do anything about weight," she says.

Other studies have found that most people aren't driven by a desire to be healthy. Instead, they judge their own weight in relation to their peers. If your peers are heavy, there's less motivation to reduce. As it turns out, we have a lot of heavy peers.

And look what we're up against: the Temptation Complication, the Cheeto Compulsion, the Comfort Connection. Then there's the sheer firepower of food producers.

"I remember a honcho at the CDC looked at me and said, 'They're way smarter than we are, and they have more money,' " the UW's Johnson recalls.

She spends a lot of time nowadays thinking about the food environment, how it's easier to get Cheetos than it is to get an apple. But even if apples were everywhere, I ask her, would Nathan choose them? Would Hannah forgo her Cheetos?

That's a tough one, she says.

"Most of us," she says sadly, "are going to choose fat and salt and sugar over foods that don't have those things in them." It's biology. It's culture.

Then she thinks, what if apples were made to seem more appealing?

"It's not like Madison Avenue is inherently evil, right?" she muses. "If we could harness that . . . oh, man . . . Think of the potential of what they could sell."

Maureen O'Hagan is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer. News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.