Thursday, June 19, 2008

Caution: Childhood Obesity

In the last month, two major media sources (Washington Post and Time magazine) have devoted page upon page to the epidemic of childhood obesity.

Washington Post: Young Lives at Risk: Our Overweight Children

Time: Our Super-Sized Kids

There is no doubt in my mind that there are, indeed, more children who are much heavier today than there were when I was growing up, and that parents of obese children should have access to resources to help them help their child.

What I find disturbing is that the current level of alarm, hysteria and obsession with children's growing waistlines hasn't caused any to pause, step back, and examine the facts. Instead, it seems, the drum beats on to reduce calories, reduce fat, add mroe fruits and vegetables, lots of whole grains and increase activity.

The message is part of a perpetual campaign to convince our population that we must do it "for the children," with an indictment against parents who are said to not see nor do anything about their fat children; that the community, doctors, schools, health organizations, the food industry and the government must lead these wayward parents to understand how to improve both diet and activity levels for their children.

We see and read about extreme cases of childhood obesity, extreme examples of poor eating habits, and extreme lifestyle habits; we're reminded that is how it happens - too much food and not enough activity, the recipe for growing fat children in America today.

But excess accumulation of fat isn't the only problem - we're also hit with the sobering reality that, in addition to heavier children, our children are also growing sick sooner; we're told of children with type II diabetes (once called "adult onset" diabetes since it was virtually unheard of in children or teens), dyslipidemia, PCOS, metabolic syndrome, precocious puberty, high blood pressure, heart disease and more. The statistics are frightening and we're constantly reminded that today's children will likely die earlier than their parents if we don't do something!

The mind-numbing statistics, experts expressing grave concerns, fine examples of poor eating habits, and images of the most extreme cases of obesity in children all work to create a strong sense that we all must do something, that all of our children are at risk, that the future is at stake if we don't do the right thing and do it now!

Is the hype really helping?

Are the solutions on the table going to work not only to prevent childhood obesity, but reverse it in those children whom are already obese?

Considering the solutions presented today is identical to the solutions offered throughout the past three decades, I can only conclude things will get worse not better; the longer it goes on, the stronger the pressure on parents will grow to 'get with the program' and follow the direction of the expert recommendations.

As parents, we have an obligation to protect our children, keep them safe, nurture them and do the best we can as we raise them.

My previous post provided an example of how the current guidelines to use BMI as the gold standard measure of overweight and obesity in children is problematic. The fact that a child can be a normal healthy weight in one month and then overweight or obese in another without any change in weight or height tells us the charts are inaccurate. The fact that the hypothetical child would have dropped from 59th to 52nd percentile for weight on the traditional chart, but went from normal to overweight on the BMI chart, speaks volumes about its deep flaws.

What's telling is that almost all the comments left in the hypothetical 'set-up' of the situation post were the belief the child gained weight. That is understandable, given the repeated message we all hear that overeating and inactivity make you gain weight. If the child now had a BMI indicating she was overweight, she must have gained weight if her BMI just two months ago said she was normal-healthy weight. Too bad it wasn't true.

If we, as parents and a nation, truly wish to resolve the issue of childhood obesity, we must begin to re-examine our assumptions and how we've arrived where we are today. Our children are not only growing fatter, they're growing sicker, and doing the same thing with only the volume turned up on the message isn't going to change this. Throwing medication at the problem isn't going to make it go away. Surgical intervention isn't going to reverse it, and certainly can't prevent it before the fact.

We have the answer, yet we ignore it.

We'll explore that in another post coming soon!

In the meantime, feel free to leave your comments about the issue of childhood obesity, its causes and its solution.


  1. Anonymous8:43 AM

    It won't be long before the government backed "fat" police are knocking on our door!
    If I remember correctly there was a report last month that childhood obesity has held steady at 17% for the last 8 or 9 years, up from the previous 14%. But the media makes it sound like this is an immediate crisis.
    I agree that dietary changes to real foods and lower carbs is the answer but as long as people listen to the government and big pharma sponsered organizations such as the AHA and ADA there is little hope of any large shift.

  2. Even aside from the horrendously poor nutritional choices that many parents make on their family's behalf, I believe there's another component in play here.

    Despite little or no real evidence that introducing technology into children's education has any positive effect, we recklessly continue to allow "big tech" to push their pro-computer education agenda. Okay, okay, much of what's done in school is sedentary anyway, so what's the difference between a child sitting behind a desk versus sitting behind a keyboard? The spillover.

    Parents blindly assume that since computers in the classroom must be good - since we're abandoning all sorts of other beneficial programs to scrape up the money to implement ed-tech - then exposure to technology at home is a good thing too. So, parents are all for fostering computer-use, videogame play, DVDs, MP3s, and all sorts of other sedentary high-tech for their kids. Rather than play ball outside, little Johnny is playing violent videogames. Rather than playing hide & seek with friends, he's texting them. Rather than fingerpainting, he's whipping up PowerPoint presentations.

    And by the way, I truly feel that we're contributing to a host of other maladies by subscribing to the media-saturated culture that's so pervasive today. By default, children want immediate gratification. Part of growing up is learning the need for and value of delaying that. But the digital world feeds right into that - giving kids the ability for, and ever-growing expectation of, immediate & constant entertainment at the simple press of a button. I believe that, to a fair degree, we're helping to create ADHD and the like by fostering a dependency on the instant-on digital world.

    We've got to give our kids the opportunity to learn about and thrive in the analog world before plunging them headlong into the digital world.

  3. Thought you'd be interested in this short omega-3 video:

  4. Anonymous7:54 AM

    Childhood obesity skyrocketed when we started recommending a "heart healty" low-fat diet for children in the early 90's. This led to the inevitable increase in mostly nutritionally empty carbohydrate calories. Prior to the 90's children were allowed to drink full fat milk, eat eggs and all manners of meats without limit. In order to prevent potential heart disease in their 50's and 60's; we instead contributed to obesity, type II diabetes (previously almost unheard of in children) which is now causing heart disease in some 20-30 yrs old. Sign me a regretful pediatrician.

  5. While I agree there is a problem, using BMI as a standard makes it seem worse than it really is.

    The Government and medical establishment will only try to reinforce the failed low fat dogma. They should all just get out of it and let families decide for themselves. The Government and medical establishment have done enough harm as it is.

  6. Anonymous1:45 PM

    I got to watch my in-laws feed their kids a "healthy" diet recently. The majority of their diet was processed grains followed by a few real foods like cheese and meat (but much less than the processed grains), sugar products, berries for one kid. There were no veggies in sight! Sadly, I don't see this changing because the parents don't want to be parents and try to augment or change their children's diets at this point (or their own for that matter).

    In short, the kids' diets looked very much like your blog entry "would you feed your child a cup of sugar?" (or something in the vein). Heartbreaking! Those kids deserve better than a life of chronic health problems!

  7. Childhood obesity also started going up as sugar and high fructose corn syrup consumption went up. Doing more of the same low-fat diet of fake foods isn't going to help these kids get well. Nor is continuing to ignore the inequalities connected to food: limited availability and affordability of healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods, for instance.

    Food Is Love

  8. Anonymous10:12 PM

    We are getting the same message here in Australia that our kids (and adults now)are the fattest in the world. Well I work at an arts facility that has thousands of school kids come through every week & I am yet to see one child that would meet the visual aspects of an overweight child never mind the tag of being obese. Give me a break the Politics of fear that abounds in our media these days is just getting out of hand maybe the sky really is falling chicken little (anyone been outside today??)

  9. Anonymous9:47 AM

    I am terrified for when I become a parent (which is a couple years down the road...haha) that I am going to be watching them like a hawk , when it comes to nutrition. I don't want to let them see how stressed I get about it but I want to pass on good habits to my children. I want them to pay attention as to what they put in their body, but not take it overboard (like I tend to do sometimes).

    I want my child to have a good childhood (I did, even though I at WHATEVER I's a wonder I wasn't overweight) and not feel like I am the "bad parent" because they can't eat some of the things other kids are eating.

  10. One interesting thing, I wonder how many people think about this. Nutrition has a huge effect on the mind as well as the body, and that includes the psychology.

    I have a cousin who decided to become a vegetarian. Badly. He was ambitious and creative and he moved to the big city nearby for more options. He made management and had friends and seemed to have a good life.

    But eventually he got depressed, and apathetic, and lost a job, and then kept getting and losing jobs, and moving back home.

    The last time I saw him he looked like the archetype of death. I kid you not. A cloak and a scythe is all he needed for the full effect.

    I feel that his diet ruined him. I don't just mean hurt his health in some way that hasn't quite killed him yet. I mean I feel it ruined his passion and ambition and mental strength. It left him depressed and apathetic and lethargic.

    Which made him a lot less capable of things like living on his own. He's depended on his parents constantly for loans and then living with them repeatedly and he's an adult.

    I wonder if people realize that a seriously unhealthy person at age 22 -- let alone one with a disease -- has a hard time living on their own. Guess who is going to see the hard reality of that? Guess who is going to get to help raise their kids?

    I think when people don't have the physical energy and consistent ambition to do things like college and work, consistently, the result is an issue not just for that person, but anybody they're leaning on for support, and sometimes other support systems (such as welfare and medi-cal).

    So I see children growing up sick as a horrible and obvious tragedy, but an issue waiting to affect a larger percentage of the culture they can't work in, gradually die in, and have to lean on, as a side effect.

  11. Anonymous7:23 PM

    Just keep on putting out the good message Regina it eventually has to get into the mainstream collective consciousness. everyone needs to listen to their own inner voice we all know what is healthy & it isn't anything that comes in a packet, tin or jar. Fresh real food that takes a little time to prepare & cook is what we need to be getting out there. this old furphie about not having enough time to cook or eat real food is not sustainable & neither is the feeding of fast food either from a supermarket or a fast food outlet is going to make us healthy. If we stop taking notice of all advertising just really made a conscious effort to ignore it then maybe things would improve.

  12. I disagree with the notion that anything in a packet, tin, or jar can't be healthy. It's still all a matter of choices.

    Putting together meals at home, still having a high degree of control over the ingredients thereof, but that still rely upon some pre-prepared components, that's gotta be better than most fast food options. So, yeah, I do use jarred pasta sauce and I bake frozen fish or chicken, but I consider the modest tradeoffs worthwhile since it does allow me to prepare meals at home and serve a nutritionally sound dinner at the table. I couldn't manage that without a few shortcuts...

  13. Anonymous8:50 AM

    O. M. G.

  14. Anonymous4:53 AM

    I think the responsibility really lies with parents on this one. But so many parents are overweight as well that it makes setting a good example difficult. In regards to BMI, they should only ever be taken as indicative figues but they certainly do give a good rough and dirty picture

  15. I agree with the other person. Parents need to take response-ability for the state their children have become. The child learns to eat from its parents and family environment first and foremost. -Andrew

  16. Anonymous1:57 AM

    Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves

  17. I agree that the resposibility is with parents. Parents need to invest in educating their kids when it comes to their health and then actively doing things to facilitate a healthy lifestyle. Buying candy and processed foods as part of the weekly grocery list needs to be elimiated from the equation. Provide your kids with the logical information they need to understand the consequences of poor health. And then provide them with options, fun options that will motivate your children to exercise. Set up a home gym - it doesn't have to be an expensive weight set and treadmills are boring. Give them a reason to enjoy exercise by making it fun. I have an exercise ball, some therabands and a mini trampoline in my home that my children love to bounce on - they think it's playing but really their body's are exerting so much energy - make it fun and they won't even think its exercise!

  18. We get the same messages here in France that our kids are the fattest in the world. I work with kids all day and don't see this at all. Give me a break.