Wellness Weekly: A Snapshot of the Top News in Wellness

Policy and Politics

An overview of relevant policy, regulatory, and political events

At The Wall Street Journal Global Food Forum last week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue suggested limiting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibilityto those who are not able to work. Such a mandate would drastically cut enrollment in the program, which currently benefits 42 million Americans. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription required)

According to The Wall Street Journal, the White House recently interviewed U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin for the position of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, which has been vacant since Tom Price’s resignation in late September. Shulkin joins a long line of potential candidates, including Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), among others. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription required)


Children and Youth

Keeping the K-12 population fit and eating well

Research shows that structured recess programs help to reduce bullying and verbal aggressive behavior in the schoolyard. One program that has seen success is the New York nonprofit Asphalt Green, which currently provides coaching and a curriculum of over 150 games to 60 schools in the state.

The School Nutrition Association’s 2017 School Nutrition Trends Report found that more than half of school districts surveyed are serving meal options with cleaner labels. Of these districts, 81% are seeking more clean label food options for school menus. Districts also report using a variety of strategies to meet sodium limits and introduce students to whole grains, including reformulating recipes, doing student taste tests, and preparing foods from scratch.


New Insights

Studies, new research, healthy nutrition and habits

University of Illinois and Kaiser Permanente researchers found that people who exercise more than 7.5 hours per week have a 27% higher risk of developing calcium buildup in their arteries, an early sign of heart disease, by middle age compared to those who exercise moderately. The authors note that this new research should not deter people from exercising, since most people don’t reach this level of extreme exercise and there is no evidence that buildup of calcium can lead to a heart attack or other health issues in active people.

A Centers for Disease Control survey found that between 2015 and 2016, the prevalence of obesity was 39.8% among adults (20 years or older) and 18.5% among youth (2-19 years old). Additionally, the report found that obesity was more prevalent among older adolescents aged 6-19 years compared to children aged 2-5 years. Obesity was most prevalent in Hispanic youth (25.8%) followed closely by non-Hispanic black youth (22%).

A new study found that women who sleep less than 6.25 hours per night are 3 times more likely to develop diabetes during pregnancy, compared to women who sleep more. While there is no demonstrated causal relationship between lack of sleep and gestational diabetes, the study authors suggest pregnant women should be aware of these results since diabetes can lead to respiratory issues, excessive birth weight, and other health concerns for the baby. (The New York Times, subscription required)

According to a recent studypatients’ online ratings of physicians do not align with doctors’ official performance scores, which relate to outcomes, cost of care, and adherence to medical guidelines. Consumer ratings reflect more subjective criteria such as friendliness and empathy, rather than quality of performance. Based on this trend, researchers at the University of California, Riverside are designing a tool to filter answers into categories that distinguish between subjective and medical information.

Researchers found that patients referred by their doctor to a commercial weight management company such as Weight Watchers achieved a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. These results suggest a partnership between primary care physicians and weight management companies would benefit patients.

Lancet report on the effects of pollution on health found that diseases heavily influenced by pollution accounted for 1 in 6 deaths in 2015. Most of these deaths were attributed to noncommunicable diseases, including asthma, cancer, and heart disease.


Innovative Models, Med Tech, and Wearables

Google decided to pull a feature that displayed the projected number of calories that would be burned during walks directed by the iOS Google Maps application. The feature drew criticism from individuals on social media who suggested the new tool could develop dangerous mindsets that lead to eating disorders, prompting the recall. The app also equated the number of calories to certain foods (e.g., mini cupcakes) but did not offer an explanation on how they made the calculation. (The New York Times, subscription required)

This year, the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future revamped the Maryland Food System Map, which visualizes food access gaps in the state. The map includes 175 data indicators, including diabetes and obesity rates, location of supermarkets, median household income, water quality, and more. It has been used by food policy councils and nonprofits as a tool to advance initiatives that tackle food insecurity in the state.

Last week, Kroger held its first Natural Foods Innovation Summit, which featured around 50 brands that produce natural foods like packaged snacks, water, and yogurt. The summit was focused on natural food trends in holistic health, convenience, and sustainability. Kroger announced that it would hold these summits a few times per year.

The insurance group Anthem Blue Cross launched a new integrated health platform, Engage, that amasses health plan and benefits information, individual clinical and claims data, and data from health and wellness apps into one place. The platform will be able to deliver wellness programs, including challenges and incentives, that connect to individuals’ fitness trackers.

Kimbal Musk, the younger brother of Elon Musk, made headlines once again for his work seeking to revolutionize the nation’s food system and promote a return to healthy food from local, chemical-free farms. Currently, Musk is spending millions of dollars on several educational and agricultural food-related projects through his brand, The Kitchen, hoping to create “innovation around food.” (The New York Times, subscription required)

Fast Company article profiles NovoNutrient, a startup reducing pollution and supporting the fishing industry at the same time. Using carbon dioxide and other emissions, the company has developed an animal feed that can serve as a substitute for fish’s current protein source, which is other fish. 

Before Brands, a San Francisco-based company, introduced a new product, SpoonfulOne Daily Mix-in. This daily dietary supplement claims to train a child's body to acclimate to foods that commonly cause allergies. Children as young as 4-6 months old can take this supplement.

With the help of digital startup Tenor, companies like Wendy’s and Dunkin Donuts are beginning to use branded GIFs to advertise and track consumers’ habits

New advances for those looking to find meatless protein sources are on the way. Companies such as PepsiCo and General Mills are funding research on plant-based proteins, while companies like Aspire Food Group are exploring the use of insects as a protein source. Meanwhile, companies like Memphis Meats are developing technologies to grow meat substitutes. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription required)

In a similar vein, as consumers become increasingly concerned with sugar’s role in the country’s obesity and diabetes epidemics, food manufacturers are investigating sugar substitutes. Some companies are testing zero-calorie sweeteners like monkfruit, ingredients that block bitter taste receptors to help food taste sweeter, and manipulating sugar to taste sweeter so that less can be used in a food product. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription required)


Philanthropic Updates and Grants

The Alexa Diabetes Challenge announced Sugarpod as the $125,000 grand prize winner for the Merck-sponsored contest. Sugarpod, a voice-activated diabetes wellness plan developed by Wellpepper, helps diabetes patients manage their condition by tracking blood sugar levels, mealtimes, medication adherence, and other tasks.

West Elm and Quaker have teamed up to create a jar for overnight oats, and they are donating $1 for every jar they sell to Common Threads, a nonprofit that teaches children and families about healthy eating.

The Chef Ann Foundation launched a campaign that donates $1 to healthy food programs in schools for every Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter post that uses the “#RealSchoolFood” hashtag. Campaign sponsors include Made in Nature, Organic Valley, Mamma Chia, and others.

The Kind Foundation is investing $20 million into a digital learning platform called Empatico that aims to teach children empathy. The goal of the free platform is to expose children to different cultures by connecting elementary students around the world through a video-conferencing tool and interactive lesson plans.



New York Times article discusses the factors that link the economic state of a nation and the health of its people. (The New York Times, subscription required)

An article from Vox takes a deep dive into the influence of candy industry-funded research that has led consumers to believe chocolate is a “healthy choice” today.

Responding to the recent decision in Cook County to repeal a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, a New York Times op-ed argues that the best way to combat “Big Soda” is through community engagement. (The New York Times, subscription required)

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio is the latest investor in Beyond Meat.