“Not Till You Finish Your Fries!”—-The Childhood Obesity Epidemic

I was sitting with my kids at one of the “buffet” style restaurants. At the table next to us was a child sitting with a “my eyes were bigger than my stomach” plate full of french fries. He asked his mother if he could go up to get some dessert and she said “Not until you finish all your fries”. Now I suppose that it could have been the mother using this as a teaching moment about not wasting food, but unfortunately it was not.
What bothered me most was that this young child was already moderately obese, and from his weight and eating behavior he was clearly following (or being led) in the footsteps of his parents and older siblings.
By the way, food quality aside, it is possible to make good food choices at buffet type restaurants, and it can also be a nice venue to teaching children about trying different things, and making good nutritional choices.
So why did this bother me so much?
Child and adolescent obesity in the United States is a major and growing problem, more than tripling in the past 30 years. Nearly 20% of all children and adolescents in this country are categorized as obese, which is not just “a little heavy”. The causes? Bad food, too much food, advertising, poor dietary habits, lack of physical activity, lack of education, stress, environmental factors etc. Unfortunately the most easily influenced among us are now suffering from the immediate consequences of being obese, and unless something changes they will begin to develop the long term complications that follow chronic obesity.
Obese youth are beginning to develop things that up to this point were associated with adults. They are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, have pre-diabetes (or even “adult onset” diabetes), bone and joint problems, and sleep apnea.
Obese children are at higher risk for poor self esteem and other social and psychological problems.
Obese children and adolescents are much more likely to be obese adults with the subsequent higher risk for developing heart disease, strokes, diabetes, arthritis, and an increased risk of developing many types of cancer including breast, colon, cervix, endometrium, prostate and many others.
There are even hormonal concerns. Obesity in both male and female adolescents is associated with increased levels of estrogen and the stress hormone cortisol. Because of the increase in estrogen, males are more likely to experience breast development. In females, periods are more likely to start earlier, and they are at higher risk for endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, PMS, and fibrocystic breasts. Girls who are obese at puberty are at risk for higher levels of testosterone which is associated with development of acne, facial hair, and abnormal periods.
I know that as a father, the fewer of these issues that I have to contend with, the better my life will be.
So how do we correct this? Unfortunately both the cause and the solution boils down to one simple thing–US. It is an uphill battle, but our children can’t be expected to make the right decisions on their own. They need our support, they need us to be role models, they need us to counter the unhealthy messages and advertising that they are exposed to, and they need us to set limits and expectations. We need to engage our schools to make sure that healthy choices are offered at lunch and that physical activity is encouraged. We need make sure they stay as physically active as possible. We need to explain to them that this is about more than just “not getting fat”.
We can prevent this epidemic from worsening. By doing so we will improve the quality of not only their lives, but ours as well. Think about this—as we age we would like our children and grandchildren sitting at our side, helping to care for us, not sitting with us suffering from the same problems that we have.