America’s obesity problem has expanded to include, not just adults, but children as young as two, leading to an increase in cases of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels in children.
The average American kid in the early 1970s had a five percent chance of being obese. Now, however, the average teenager has an 18 percent chance of being obese.
“At its simplest, obesity results from people consuming more calories than their bodies burn,” says Dr. William H. Dietz, Director of the CDC’s Division of Nutrition in a documentary called “The Obesity Epidemic.” “But it’s a more complex problem than that.”
Dr. Dietz explains in the documentary that there is more to America’s obesity problem than children eating too much and not exercising enough. He says weight gain involves complicated changes in culture.
Hear nutritionist Karon Felten discuss the rise of secondary weight-related diseases in children
ARE THEY SIMPLY LAZY?
Exercise is a factor and the CDC studied 15,000 high school students to determine how much exercise they participated in during the week. While the study shows that about a third spend three or more hours watching television daily, and about a third used a computer for the same amount of time, more than 82 percent of girls and 62 percent of boys reported exercising at least 60 minutes during the previous seven-day period. Only 18 percent of girls and 10 percent of boys reported doing no exercise during the same period.
Participation in school sports has increased dramatically, especially participation by girls, since the 1970s.
Yet, daily physical education has declined in American schools.
“The percentage of high school students who attended physical education classes daily decreased from 42% in 1991 to 25% in 1995 and remained stable at that level until 2011 (31%),” says a CDC report.
Dr. Terry O’Toole of the CDC says in the documentary “The Obesity Epidemic” that technology has left Americans more sedentary. But other factors contribute to America’s lack of exercise, such as unsafe streets and distances to school requiring car trips instead of walking.
“We spend a lot of time sitting in front of screens for work and for entertainment,” said O’Toole.
IS IT THEIR DIET?
Karon Felten, a nutrition professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, has spent many years involved in clinical work involving heart disease and nutrition. While the casual observer may not notice a serious change in the weight of today’s children, she says the secondary diseases, linked to obesity, are on the rise.
The prevalence and degree of obesity has gone up, Felten says. More children are being diagnosed with type II diabetes, hypertension and doctors are seeing “children with fatty livers at a very young age,”
Although Felten, like Dietz, says the issues involved are more complex than just diet and exercise, she believes changes in the average American diet contribute dramatically to the problem.
Fast food and processed food, Felten says, have become more common in the American diet, and the introduction of high fructose corn syrup in drinks has become another problem.
Listen to nutritionist Karon Felten discuss the dangers of high fructose corn syrup
“We are surrounded by food. We’re constantly bombarded by it,” says Dr. Latetia V. Moore in the documentary “The Obesity Epidemic.” “We’re consuming larger portion sizes and more calories than ever before.”
The same CDC study that monitored activity also monitored food intake. About 10 percent of students reported drinking three or more sodas per day. One 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola contains 65 grams of sugar, mainly in the form of high fructose corn syrup.
As portion sizes have increased, so have profits. A press release by RNCOS, an industry research firm, says that “the US fast food industry has been witnessing impressive growth for the past few years despite the growing concerns such as rising health consciousness and increasing incidences of obesity in the US population.”
The press release predicts continued growth in the U.S. fast food market.
ARE THEY DOOMED?
Society, Felten says, has to model the behavior that it wants children to imitate. But she believes it starts with parents who are responsible for what types of food enters a household.
“As parents, we have to be the leader in it,” Felten says.
But this may be a bigger challenge because, according to one poll, most parents do not recognize if their children are overweight. The poll showed very few parents assessed their own children as overweight, even though national statistics report otherwise.
Many parents in the poll reported that it was difficult to feed children a healthy diet due to hectic schedules and the volume of advertising for food and beverages. Poor school choices were another problem.
Parents polled found it difficult to find time to exercise with their children and reported the lack of walk able sidewalks as a deterrent.
The average American kid must endure a barrage of fast food and beverage advertising, negotiate dangerous streets and deal with well-meaning, but somewhat delusional parents.
But there is hope.
After 30 years of bad news, a New York Times article in December 2012 reported that a small, but positive, downward trend in child obesity may indicate a reversing course in the health problem.
The article, however, cautions that most of the progress was in higher income families. Low-income family had much smaller improvement.
The issue of child obesity is complex and there is no simple solution. The old-fashioned advice to “eat less and exercise” may appear like common sense, but it is only part of the equation. Today’s average American kid is surrounded by labor-saving devices and easy access to high-calories foods. Advertising makes eating out as a normal and desirable way to dine.
Dr. Dietz believes it bigger changes need to be made.
“We also have to change those choices in our schools, in our child-care
settings, in our work sites, and in our communities.”
2013 Paul George