Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Understanding the Childhood Obesity Epidemic Part I: Causes and Effects

About two months ago, CHG published The Ultimate Guide to Understanding the Food Crisis, a point-by-point (some would say CliffNote-ian) breakdown of a complex global issue. I enjoyed writing it and learned a lot in the process, so I thought I’d try another one.

Today’s post tackles the childhood obesity epidemic. It’s a breakdown and summary of dozens of articles on the subject, specifically addressing the causes of, problems with, and solutions to our kids' ever-expanding bellies.

Since it's a massive subject, this part will focus on causation and effects. Look out for the solution section next Wednesday, and please, feel free to contribute ideas and/or corrections.

WHAT IT IS (in a sentence or two)

For a variety of interconnected reasons, 32% of school-age American children are now considered overweight, and about half of those are classified as obese. It’s resulted in a monstrous wave of serious health problems rarely seen in children, as well as a $14 billion dollar annual medical bill for related expenses.

Time Magazine is to-the-point: “The current generation of children may be the first in American history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”


1) They come down with adult diseases. The average fifth grader weighs about 11 pounds more than they did 45 years ago, and with that added weight comes a host of illnesses usually seen in grown-ups, including heart disease, Type II diabetes, hypertension, liver problems, arthritis, cancer, high cholesterol, pancreas dysfunction, sleep apnea, gallstones, joint issues, headaches, vision problems, Blount’s disease, asthma, Polycystic ovary syndrome, depression, and more.

2) They’re more likely to die prematurely. Two separate studies have correlated being overweight with A) a two-to-five-year drop in life expectancy," and B) “an increased risk of premature death in younger and middle-aged women.”

3) They’ll almost definitely be obese as an adult. Depending on your gender and parents’ weight, between 70% and 90% of overweight children will become obese grown-ups. According to Obesity Research Center neuroscientist Randy Seeley, “When you're talking about morbidly obese kids, zero percent will grow up to be normal-weight adults.”

4) Their activity levels suffer. In general, overweight children can not keep up with average-sized peers. A Washington Post commentor notes, “They're robbed of the natural enjoyment of being a kid -- being able to play outside, run. If they have high blood pressure, they have a constant risk of stroke." Meanwhile, another WP physical therapist claims, “They complain of simple things like tying their shoes. They can't bend down and tie their shoes because excess fat gets in the way."”

5) They tend to have poorer grades and discipline problems. While obesity isn’t necessarily the cause of these problems, there are ties to both of them. In a Newsweek-cited study, the California Department of Ed discovered, “a direct correlation between physical fitness and SAT scores, with the most fit in the 71st percentile and the least fit in the 36th percentile-almost half as much.” According to another Newsweek source, one Kansas Elementary School saw violent incidents decreased by 2/3rds the year after kids got phys ed back.

6) They have a greater incidence of depression. Thanks to social pressures and constant mixed messages about body image, obese kids are “seven times more likely to be depressed.”

7) Their health care will cost more. Consider these statements: “Treating a child with obesity is three times more costly than treating the average child.” ... “Those patients go more frequently to the emergency room and are two to three times more likely to be admitted.” ... “Based on research on the current workforce, which has shown tens of millions of workdays missed annually, indirect costs will also be enormous.”


1) Modern life stepped in. Most American households operate on two incomes nowadays, meaning there's less time for grocery shopping, cooking, and learning about healthy eating. Parents compensate for lost time with convenience products and takeout, the latter of which takes up almost half of our meal budgets. What’s more, those ever-increasing portions contain about 1/3rd more fat and calories than homemade dishes. “Family dinners have become almost historical,” says one New York Magazine psychotherapist, and hectic schedules prevent kids from getting an eating routine down.

2) TV and video games replaced actual movement. According to Time, U.S. kids spend about three hours per day in front of some kind of screen – hours that were formerly spent playing with friends. This is directly related to weight gain. In fact, the National Institute on the Media and the Family says, “children who watch more than three hours of television a day are 50 per cent more likely to be obese than kids who watch fewer than two hours.”

3) Junk food companies target children. These days, kids as young as three “prefer anything wrapped in a McDonald’s label to plain-white paper burgers, fries, carrots, and milk” says the Washington Post. Maybe it’s because they see an average of 40,000 TV ads PER YEAR. And those ads aren't for Encyclopedia Britannica, either. One University of Minnesota study claims, “Nine out of 10 food commercials shown during Saturday morning children's television programming are for foods of poor nutrition.” Coca-Cola alone has $2 billion to blow on marketing, which may have lead to the 300% increase in soda drinking in just about two decades. And Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says, “for every $100 we may spend to try to make a healthy, active environment for kids, industry spends $10,000 advertising to them.”

4) Parents are getting heavier. Currently, an estimated 2/3rds of Americans are overweight, and it’s created a cycle of inherited weight problems. In fact, thanks to genetics and lifestyle, two obese parents have 80% chance of having obese children.

5) School lunches took a nosedive health-wise. 27 million kids gobble about 4 billion meals public school meals each year. Until recent changes, those menus looked like this Mother Jones description:

“In Lynnwood, Washington, we would see kids eating sausage with Belgian waffle sticks and syrup. In Clovis, California, bacon cheeseburgers. In La Quinta, California, Canadian bacon and cheese rolls. In Rexburg, Idaho, cheese nachos and waffles. In Fort Collins, Colorado, "homemade" pigs in a blanket. In Bryan, Texas, cheeseburgers, chicken-fried steak, and pizza. In Hot Springs, Arkansas, country steak with creamed potatoes. In Cedar Falls, Iowa, mini-corndogs. In Lafayette, Indiana, beef ravioli with cheesy broccoli. In Columbus, Ohio, egg rolls with tater tots. In Kingstree, South Carolina, sloppy joes with onion rings. In Richmond, Virginia, chili cheese nachos. In Gatesville, North Carolina, three-meat subs with Fritos. In Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, cheese steak on rolls with buttered pasta. And in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, pretzels with cheese sauce.”

And that’s not even counting the junk-food laden vending machines that are allowed to line hallways in exchange for school funding. Those machines, sponsored by Coke, Pepsi, and a slew of other big businesses, are undermining administrative efforts to bring healthy food into the lunchroom.

(There’s also the agribusiness conundrum, which is entirely too complicated to explain here. But please read the Mother Jones article if you’d like to have your mind blown.)

6) Many don’t have access to healthy foods or exercise opportunities. Children in poor urban and rural areas – especially city-dwelling minority kids - don’t have the resources to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Play areas and exercise programs are few and far between, and supermarkets simply don’t exist. In fact, one study found that, “white neighborhoods have four times as many supermarkets as African-American ones.” To add to the problem, the poverty-stricken can’t afford the 74.6% increase in produce prices since 1989.

7) The government dropped the ball. Blaming it on the feds seems like an easy way to shift responsibility, but several sources mention aborted government programs or outright administrative denial as factors in the obesity epidemic. From No Child Left Behind (which many fault for the reduction in phys ed programs) to the aborted Verb initiative (a kid-oriented health program de-funded last year) to the WIC program (which didn’t provide for produce until 2007), wide-scale efforts to combat the problem have been shoddy, at best. Many believe that government has no motivation to do so, either, as their ties with agribusiness and food manufacturers are far more lucrative than promoting good nutrition.

8) We evolved. Simply, humans are meant to eat a lot, to store for the winter and provide for times when we don’t have access to food. But, we do have access now. All the time, in some cases. So those calories aren’t needed.

9) All the other reasons. Stress, boredom, depression, medical maladies, and lack of sleep are just a few of the other myriad issues contributing to kids’ obesity. While they definitely play a significant role, they’re slightly less endemic than the problems listed above.

So, that's it for now. Part 2: Solutions is coming next Wednesday. In the meantime, here's some valuable extra reading material/the sources of most of my facts.


Baby Fat (New York Magazine, 2/04)
The Economics of Obesity: A Q&A With the Author of The Fattening of America (New York Times, 2/08)
Facts You Should Know (Washington Post, 5/08)
Generation XL (Newsweek, 1/05)
How America's Children Packed On the Pounds (Time Magazine, 6/08)
Inertia at the Top (Washington Post, 5/08)
National Institute on the Media and the Family

It's Not Just Genetics (Time Magazine, 6/08)
Obesity In Children And Teens (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 5/08)
Obesity Threatens a Generation (Washington Post, 5/08)
A Plan for Overweight Kids (Newsweek, 5/08)
School lunches are loaded with fat… (Mother Jones, 2/03)
The Search for Solutions (Washington Post, 5/08)
The Threat From Within (Newsweek, 1/07)
Weighty Issues for Parents (Time Magazine, 6/08)

(Photos courtesy of Stonyfield,,, and davidwallphoto.)


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