The skinny on childhood obesity

The numbers of obese children are rising—so what can we do about it?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. By 2008, nearly one-third of children and adolescents in the United States were either overweight or obese, which shouldn’t be a surprise when you consider that they are just following in the ponderous footprints of their parents. Not only is more than one-third of the adult population obese, but a truly astounding two-thirds of the adult population is either overweight or obese. OK, wait, I must be reading that wrong—two-thirds of the population is overweight? As Donna from That ’70s Show would say: “What the hell!?”

How and why did being fat become not the rare exception, but the norm, and what does it mean to the health and well being of kids? According to experts, the obese are much more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease, bone and joint pain, osteoarthritis, and many forms of cancer. Then there are social problems and lack of self-esteem that comes with being overweight—although it might be less of a burden for kids now that so many of their classmates are also overweight. Aside from the impacts on overweight individuals, the obesity epidemic dramatically increases medical expenses for the nation as a whole, which means we all pay more for private insurance and public health programs.

So how did more than one-third of our kids become obese? There are lots of factors. Kids eat and drink way, way too much sugar and sugar drinks and simple carbohydrates. Some statistics suggest that people drink three 60-ounce Big Gulps each week, which adds up to an additional 1,700 sugar calories per week … which, if all other factors remained equal, would add up to two extra pounds of weight gain per month, or 24 pounds per year. Fortunately, all factors are not equal, and the image of 240-pound 12-year-olds or 1,200-pound 50-year-olds are mostly based on ignorance of physiology.

While we are stuffing our faces with those sweet calories, we are also not making much effort to burn them off. As a society, we have decided that physical education classes have become less important than doing well on standardized tests and that structured after-school activities should be geared towards padding college applications, instead of burning calories, as evidenced by the many schools around the nation getting their P.E. programs cut. Away from school, instead of running around outside, our kids are watching television, texting each other and spending time on Facebook. Even if kids did have the time and inclination to burn calories the way we used to, like playing tag or football or whatever else allowed us to chase each other around the neighborhood at full speed, parents are now so paranoid about something happening to their kids that they are not willing to let them go outside and play by themselves.

What to do about the obesity epidemic is simple and very complicated at the same time. At first glance it is simple: eat more healthy food and less junk food, and exercise more. The complicated part is making that happen.

Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories says that refined sugars and grains directly affects the hormone, insulin, that regulates fat accumulation.

“The problem is not controlling our impulses, but changing the entire American food economy and rewriting our beliefs about what constitutes a healthy diet,” Taubes writes.

Taubes believes that for a generation, we were taught that everything needed to be fat-free, which in turn led to people eating less fat and protein, and more sugar and simple carbs. Now, finally, most food experts are finding that high fat, high protein diets do a much better job at helping to keep the pounds off, then a low fat-high carb diet. But sugar is an addictive food, and it does not relinquish its hold on us easily. I get this, because I suffer from an addiction to all things chocolate, especially those dark chocolate truffle bars and those salty dark chocolate almonds from Trader Joe’s, hot chocolate, and then those … oh sorry, I got distracted.

Mary McNamara, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, recently wrote a blog about her experiences as an overweight child.

“For most of my childhood, I was the only fat girl in my class—I can still name the other two fat girls in my grade,” she writes. “Now, fat kids fill the playground and the high school bleachers.”

McNamara notes, however, that childhood obesity is “at least as much about your head, as it is about what you put in your mouth.” We know about junk food and lack of exercise, but she writes that we are not doing a good job about figuring out why “otherwise intelligent people persist in behavior that makes them unhealthy and miserable.” She says that the overweight come up with all sorts of excuses in their mind for why they eat too much and exercise too little.

So what are some steps that organizations and individuals can do to reduce obesity?

Community: Build bike paths, parks and sidewalks. Make exercise a priority, not something we do if we happen to be able to fit it into our busy schedules.

Schools: Administrators need to understand that kids brain’s work better when they get exercise. Lots of it. Every day. We need a philosophy that physical education is as important as math and science. Schools need to provide more real food. Schools who have devoted themselves to provide fresh food from scratch have not only found it more healthy, but that kids will actually eat it. Read about one local school district’s efforts to do this on page 10.

People who need to lose weight: Eat protein, vegetables, and a lot less refined carbs. Reduce portion sizes. Go outside and go for a walk. Play Frisbee or throw a baseball around. If you are going to be addicted to anything, make it exercise.

Parents: Look in the mirror. Is your diet and lifestyle part of the problem? Do something about it. And let your kid be a kid. That means running, jumping, bike riding, and just playing outside. It means moving, not sitting.

We have a pretty good idea of what causes obesity, and we also have lots of great ideas what to do about it, but it all comes down to actually doing something about it. While it is hard to lose weight, it’s easier than living with diabetes or heart disease.