What is making the next generation fat? Just a decade or so ago the debate of childhood obesity was not even a matter to be discussed. Our grandparents never even questioned the weight of their children. Their children, our parents, ate healthy foods at the family dining table and played outside all day long, but the subject of childhood obesity has gained quite a bit of interest since those days. With the ever so growing popularity of fast foods, the introduction of Play station and Xbox games and the more demanding careers of today’s parents, the overdevelopment of both urban and suburban areas our kids are living sedentary lives and are becoming very overweight.
The epidemic of childhood obesity is rapidly rising in America. The number of children who are now overweight has tripled since 1980 and the prevalence of obesity in younger children has more than doubled. Overall, approximately 17% or 12.5 million of the children in the United States between the ages of 2 and 19 are already obese (_C_ _enters for Disease Control and Prevention_ _, 2012_). This finding is very disturbing to many Americans and has caused many debates on who is responsible for this rising epidemic and how can we control it.
Childhood obesity is measured by the body mass index (BMI). The BMI is calculated using a child’s height and weight. BMI does not measure body fat directly, but it is a reasonable indicator of body fatness for most children. A child’s weight status is determined using an age and sex specific percentile for BMI rather than the normal BMI categories which are used to determine an adult BMI. These are used because a child’s body composition varies as they age and also varies between boys and girls. Overweight in a child is defined as a BMI at or above the 85th percentile and lower than the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex. Obesity in a child is defined as a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex. The causes of childhood obesity are multi-factorial. Obesity in children is caused by a lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating habits, media and marketing campaigns, adverse family conditions, stress and the availability of technology.
Most Americans agree that childhood obesity is more prevalent today than ever before. If you look into the bedroom of an average American child you find video games, a computer, usually a television and possibly some other electronic gadgets. Today American children have access to just about anything they could ever want. They just ask and most parents will buy them whatever they want. If you looked into the same child’s room thirty or forty years ago you would have probably found baby dolls, toy trucks and probably even some books.
You would have found the neighborhood children outside playing in the kickball or hide and seek in the yard. Children played outside from sun up to sun down. The playing of these physical activities outside has unfortunately been replaced by the inactive high tech toys of today. The kick ball and hide and seek games of thirty years ago have now been replaced with games being played on the Play Station, Xbox or Wii. It is estimated that children in the United States are spending at least twenty five percent of their waking hours watching television and statistically children who watch the most hours of television have the highest incidence of obesity.
If you take another look inside the house of 30 years ago you would find a dad who went to work every day and a mom who stayed home to tend to the household duties and the children. With the rising cost of our day to day living expenses in America, most homes now must have both dad and mom working full time to make ends meet. Over the last two decades there has been an increase in the number of dual income families as more women have entered the workforce and more women become the sole supporter for their single parent family. This new way of living has caused American children to eat whatever is convenient for mom or dad to fix or for some children to eat whatever is easiest for them to fix for themselves.
Constraints on time has made working parents rely more heavily on prepared, processed, and fast foods, which are generally high calorie, high fat, and low in nutritional content. Usually these “easy” meals come in greasy bags from fast food establishments or in plastic wrappers within a frozen cardboard box and have to be cooked in the microwave before eating. In some homes the stove never even gets warm from preparing a meal more than once a week. These “easy” meals are contributing to the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
Today’s youth are considered the most inactive generation in history and the marketers of fast food have taken full advantage of it. American children are exposed to some 40,000 or more food advertisements per year. (_U.S. D_ _ept. of Health & Human Services_ _, 2011_). Most of these advertisements promote fast food. Therefore, the expanding fast-food industry is another cause for the rising childhood obesity epidemic. Fast food companies like McDonald’s or Burger King are not only selling their food, but also have a way of marketing which is not fair to consumers. Most fast food restaurants offer a toy together with a children’s meal. Usually the toy is from a popular new movie or television show so it is very appealing to children. Children are stimulated to eat junk food because they know they will be rewarded with a toy.
Psychological issues and stress are said to cause obesity in adults, but they both can cause obesity in children as well. Some children have a difficult time dealing with stress, so they use food to comfort them when they feel unsure of things. Like adults, they too use food as a comfort when they feel, bored, anxious or angry. Children in the past did not have to worry so much about parents being divorced and remarried, mothers that worked long hours or fathers that traveled for most of the week. Today’s economy has put financial strain on parents and children cannot help but to hear and feel the results of these tough economic times. The children of this generation are all too familiar with all of these situations. Each child has to contend with different factors in their lives and they too turn to food as a solution.
Our environment too has an effect on the growing number of obese children. Experts are now looking to at our environment as a cause of the rapid increase of obesity in children in the United States. In urban and suburban areas the overdeveloped environment can create obstacles for children to stay physically active. In urban areas the space for outdoor recreation can be scarce, which prevents kids from having a protected place to play. Neighborhood crime, lack of street lighting and busy traffic can impede children from being able to run and play or ride bicycles as a means of daily exercise. In the suburban areas, the evolution of ‘sprawl’ can prevent children from walking or biking and contributes to the great amount of dependence on using motor vehicles to get around. Suburban neighborhoods too lack resources for physical recreation and many suburban neighborhoods do not include sidewalks.
Genetics and DNA are also contributing factors in the causes of childhood obesity. A group of British researchers checked the DNA of 300 children who were overweight. They looked for extra copies or deletions of DNA segments. They found evidence that a deletion of DNA may promote obesity. The deletion of chromosome 16 is thought to cause obesity in children because it removes a gene that the brain needs to respond to the appetite controlling hormone leptin. Children with a chromosome 16 deletion appear to have a very strong drive to eat. These children are very, very hungry and always want to eat. (_British Medical Association, 2005_)
This very slim chance may be the only cause that we cannot change. Unfortunately, some children are destined to obesity. These children are born with the genes that cause them to put on weight more easily and quicker than other children. These children end up storing the fat more easily than other children. There is not anything these children can do about their genes. Despite the strong influence that genetics can have on the epidemic of childhood obesity, studies show that our genetic makeup has not changed dramatically over the last couple of generations. Therefore the increases and prevalence of childhood obesity has to be mostly from other behavioral and environmental factors, not genetics.
There are a number of root causes of obesity in the children of the United States. Selecting one or two main causes is next to impossible because the potential influences are multiple and intertwined. With the contributing factors of technology, family structure, advertising, stress and our physical environment we are making the next generation fat. We can make small changes that will have a significant impact on the issue of childhood obesity. Parents and caregivers can encourage children to adopt healthy eating habits and be more physically active. We need to focus on overall good health, not necessarily a certain goal weight. We should teach and model healthy and positive attitudes toward food and physical activity. We should establish daily meal and snack times, and eat together as families as much as possible.
When we shop for groceries we should purchase foods that will give children a wide variety of healthful foods to choose from. We should try to plan meals and serve them in sensible portions. Allowing children to “scoop” their own food can promote them eating in unhealthy amounts. These are just a few ideas of small change that can make a huge difference. We also need to promote exercise as much as possible. Having children walk to school when distance and safety allows is great exercise. Children should be encouraged to play outdoor games rather than just be allowed to sit in front of the television. There are plenty of activities that our children can do to get exercise.
Remember even household chores like raking leaves or running the vacuum cleaner constitute as exercise. Washing the car on a hot summer day can be fun while they are getting exercise. Some children will jump at the chance to earn a few bucks. Children can be rewarded with a few dollars and they will never know they are being bribed into getting some exercise. Eating out is another place to be mindful of our decisions. When eating out is it important to be conscious of our food choices and try to keep healthy eating in mind. Lots of fast food places now offer healthy alternatives. The obesity issue is prevalent in the next generation, but it is not too late for us to work together to reverse this epidemic.
British Medical Association, June 2005. _Preventing Childhood Obesity._
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Centers for Disease Control, July 16, 2012, _Overweight and Obesity_.
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Hassink, Sandra G, MD, FAAP. (2006) A _Parent’s Guide to Childhood Obesity._
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Herscher, Elaine, Woolston, Chris and Tartamella, Lisa. (2004) _Generation Extra Large._
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Ludwig, David, MD, Ph.D. (2007) _Ending the Food Fight._
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