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Childhood Obesity --
Would you like some hypocrisy with that?

By Staci Schoff Carsten

October 2005

Think "obsession" is too strong of a word? A quick Google search on "childhood obesity" turns up roughly 588,000 links, and a search for the same on Amazon will reveal over 17,000 books. Many of them make overly simplistic (and alarmist) statements such as, "Sodas Keep Child Obesity Soaring." Obesity is a very serious health concern and it is on the rise in America, including among our children, but with roughly 6-15 percent of children and teenagers considered obese is it really "soaring?" And if we suddenly outlawed soda would that fix the problem? The answers, of course, are not really and an emphatic no, respectively. Soda isn't helping the issue and I'm not defending its place in anyone's diet, but the answer to the problem can only be found by looking beyond each of the popular scapegoats.

It's easy for Americans to focus on childhood obesity. When we see obese adults we have a hard time sympathizing, because we know that no one is force-feeding people Big Macs. But with kids, we can blame the TV, bad parenting, bad school lunches, McDonalds, advertising, and the list goes on. We can feel sorry for kids, because it can't be their fault so it must be someone else's. And there's no end to the people we're willing to blame. Whether it's explicitly stated or not, overweight parents of obese children are usually being criticized the most because kids learn to eat by example. Only my kids (and I know I'm not alone) seem to not have gotten the memo, as I can think of at least twenty things (both healthy and not) that I eat regularly that they won't touch.

When I started writing this article I began to look around to see just how many obese kids I could find. Of all the children in my neighborhood there's only one. At my kids' swimming lessons (where there are several kids of all ages taking lessons) I only saw one kid who was visibly overweight in a bathing suit. There are no overweight kids in my son's preschool class. Perhaps we live in a particularly skinny area, but young kids usually look normal to me. But it must just be me, because in addition to all of the alarmist news stories I read, everyone I mentioned this topic to said something along the lines of, Oh yeah, kids today are so fat! It could also be because I live in a largely white, middle class area. Minority and low-income children are far more likely to suffer from obesity according to a Mayo Clinic report:

Although the obesity rate has increased dramatically for all U.S. children, certain ethnic minorities -- blacks, Hispanics and American Indians -- have been experiencing the highest rates of increase. Nearly 25 percent of children in these ethnic groups are obese by medical standards. Poverty is another risk factor. Between 1986 and 1998, the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables increased substantially more than did the cost of carbonated drinks, meat, sweets and snacks. So it's literally cheaper to eat unhealthy foods.

It's ironic that while obesity used to be a disease of the wealthy, in one of the wealthiest nations in the world it has become increasingly a disease of the poor. But it's not really surprising. When's the last time you heard of the government admonishing ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland to stop putting so much effort into convenience food made from cheap flour, sugar, corn and soy and to start putting more effort into helping farmers grow more fresh meat, vegetables, fruits and grains (including especially the outrageously expensive convenience food variations such as bagged salad and cut fresh fruit) at a better price for the consumer? You certainly never have and odds are you never will.

You will hear of some well-meaning, but likely ineffective programs. For instance, in my town there was a movement to allow farmers' markets in the area to accept food stamps. Theoretically, this would give low-income families access to healthy, local and often organic food. Clearly their hearts are in the right place. However, let's consider the logistics for a minute. What percentage of the people who are eligible for food stamps have the transportation and/or the time to travel five or ten miles out of town to buy about a third of the groceries they'll need for the week on a regular basis? Probably not many.

Additionally, the places where vending machine junk is being removed from schools are mostly in areas in which parents have the time, the education, the means and the inclination to make the demand. There are some schools with little tax revenue and minimal parental involvement where these issues have been addressed, but for the most part, the kids benefiting from this are not as likely to suffer from obesity in the first place.

Few people are more fond of blaming parents (and particularly working mothers) for the rise in childhood obesity than Mary Eberstadt, author of Home Alone America. According to her, one of the ways working mothers contribute to their children's corpulence is due to the difficulty in combining paid work and breastfeeding. Apparently she's forgotten that back in the good ol' 1950s when middle class white women were home, they were also bottle feeding their infants. Not to mention that in the same time period most of the black and/or poor mothers (whose children would be at high risk for obesity today) were working. Yet in spite of all the things those mothers were doing "wrong," childhood obesity wasn't even a blip on the radar screen of social concerns.

Eberstadt wants us to believe that working mothers are the reason that kids eat too much and don't exercise enough. However, she concedes that maternal obesity is the greatest predictor of child obesity, which (someone should let her know) is actually true whether Mom is home in the afternoon to overeat with her kids or not. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the most significant way that working mothers contribute to childhood obesity is by insuring that they have enough money to keep food in the house for their kids to eat. Those rotten feminists.

Insurance companies are also very concerned about childhood obesity and have instituted programs to teach kids how to eat better, since obese kids tend to become obese adults. My four-year-old recently announced that we won't get cancer and die like his great grandfather did because, "We eat healthy food and drink water." So obviously I'm not opposed to teaching children that it's important to eat healthily, but am I the only one who thinks telling five-year-olds to read nutrition labels is a bigger than necessary burden? And while I'm a fan of nutrition labeling, didn't people know what "junk" food was prior to the mandatory labels? When I was a kid I remember knowing that potato chips were "not good for me," without having any idea how many "net carbs" were in each ounce.

Girls are also at higher risk than boys, because girls tend to tie activity into looking good rather than being healthy (or just being a normal kid). With the sexualization of girls' bodies and impossible media standards, it's not surprising that many young girls suffer from a poor body image. And as a result, they're more likely to contract various kinds of eating disorders, including compulsive eating which often leads to obesity. Fifteen-year-old American girls are twice as likely to be overweight as are girls the same age from Denmark. Obviously activity (or lack thereof) is playing a role here. But so are perfectly airbrushed, nearly anorexic models, who are portrayed in magazines and on television as being normal, healthy girls.

Often the "quality" of school physical education programs is emphasized as part of the cure for childhood obesity. Now Phys Ed is good, but how qualified should someone have to be? It's fine to have a class where kids learn about health and rules to sports games, but is this really the answer to curing obesity? Isn't plain old activity good enough? How about reducing the number of hours kids have to sit at a desk at school and let them go home? How about longer recesses in the earlier grades? Does anyone have to tell a first grader to get out there and move?

But you won't hear anyone lobbying for a shorter and more efficient school day. It's easier to simply suggest that, like all the other problems we face in education, inactive children are the result of teachers' general lack of "good enough" credentials. In the older grades, why not end school an hour earlier, and instead of "trying out" for various athletic sports, require that everyone participate in a fitness activity or sport they like in the afternoon? No PhD's in Sports Medicine required to facilitate.

There's an article on WebMD that tells you how to pack "healthy" lunches for your kids (never mind that the kids at highest risk for obesity are those whose parents are least likely to be reading WebMD looking for information on how to pack the healthiest lunch for their child). And practically every choice includes "low-fat" something or other. When is someone going to notice that prior to the invention of "low fat" food, fewer people were fat? Well, Dr. Atkins noticed, but he failed to notice that the same is true for the invention of "low carb" foods. Not to mention how disturbing it is that "experts" are routinely advocating keeping an essential nutrient out of kids' bodies. But, whatever it takes to sell more books and more prepackaged junk food in the name of "fitness."

Denise Austin is in on the action too. But at least her food ideas include real milk and yogurt (some of the time) and even other fat-containing foods like coconut and pumpkin seeds which are actually filling and full of nutrients. And she focuses on fruits and vegetables, naturally. There's seemingly no end to the advice out there around how to keep kids slim.

Even the Cookie Monster diets now. Cookies are now a "sometimes" food (pause for collective eye roll). But McDonalds advertises before and after Sesame Street (in spite of the numerous parents, myself included, who asked PBS not to allow this), though they're demonized as being one of the primary contributors to childhood obesity, along with television and bad parents. Apparently the viewers' "valuable" contributions to public television aren't as valuable as McDonalds' contributions. Watching TV contributes to sedentary kids, which is one of the real factors in childhood obesity, yet Cookie Monster isn't encouraging anyone to turn off the TV. Just more politically correct nonsense, when money is still the bottom line, with lip service to "keeping kids healthy."

Something even more troubling is that a South Beach experiment is occurring in some elementary schools. The creator of South Beach says, "Left to our own devices, we go for sweet stuff and fats. In early societies, these basic, primitive tastes helped us survive by leading us to nutritionally dense food like fruit and meat."

Imagine the horror of growing children eating nutrient dense foods like fruit and meat. Does a kid really get obese from eating too many steaks and apples? And why, does he suppose, weren't all of the Chinese people obese from eating mostly white rice (a "baaaaaad carb")? And to speak the unspeakable, this guy doesn't have enough money already from selling his snake oil to adults? Now he has to target our kids too?

Maybe a little less "South Beach" and a little more common sense is in order here. One of the problems is that French fries have become a God-given right in our schools. And it's not so much that, as it is the choice to eat nothing but a huge container of French fries. Are kids really going to get obese from eating a 350 calorie lunch every day because it has ketchup and French fries included? When kids are served a lunch with reasonable portions and milk to drink, the fat, carbohydrate and sugar content doesn't matter all that much (so long as all essential nutrients are represented). But one would practically be a fascist to suggest that we simply do away with the "food court" mentality at middle and high schools.

Interestingly, the children of the much demonized "clean-your-plate" generation didn't have a very high incidence of obesity. The reason why? They didn't have very big plates. In the following table the government gives a guideline that represents a time of scarcity and bare bones nutrition. Even using the fattiest three-ounce serving of meat I can think of, this whole list only comes to about 1,160 calories for adults and 1,450 for kids (kids had to combine growing with working back then). If the government went back to this bare-minimum-to-get-adequate-nutrition approach, adults could add in a candy bar, a soda and even a bag of chips every day and still not eat enough to become obese. Get the kids off the couch once in a while and they could do the same.

The Weston Price Foundation has been lobbying the government to change its recommendations back to pretty much exactly this for a while now. On a scale of one to ten, one being the most sane and ten being the most nutty, these people are about a fifteen, but they make several excellent points about what should be common sense in the world of nutrition. Most notably, they point out that foods that exist in nature and have been recognized as good for human consumption the world over for thousands of years did not suddenly turn "bad" in the 1980‘s, political agendas notwithstanding.

There's a lot of money spent every year trying to figure out why American kids are so much fatter than other kids. It would be amusing if it wasn't so… dumb. How many studies should we need to figure out that sitting at a desk listening to a teacher followed by sitting around watching TV during most of one's waking hours just doesn't require very many calories? PT Barnum's famous quote, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," is particularly apt in light of how much we need to be told how to not feed our kids so much.

At the same time, as a mother I understand what a horrible dilemma this might put parents in. For example, I'm not too bothered by hearing my kids complain if I say they can't have another candy bar (annoyed probably, but not really "bothered"), but I can't really imagine telling a kid who says he's still hungry that he can't have another piece of chicken or another bowl of spaghetti. It's not hard to figure out why parents in this situation are looking for a better answer and fall prey to so much "magic answer" advice.

Genetics is rarely given much of a mention in all this advice, yet it plays a really important role. It may not really be a genetic predisposition to obesity as much as the result of certain populations evolving in an area of scarcity and therefore having adapted to living on few calories. According to Dr. Paul Saltman of the University of California, San Diego,

The Pima Indians evolved to meet the needs of living in the desert. In their case genetic selection was for those with the most effective metabolism and ability to conserve scarce resources. Make available a 7-11 and a six pack of beer to people with this genetic background and you've got people who are very obese and very sick from heart disease and diabetes.

But it's not very romantic to say that most of us (including many of our children) just eat too much. And it certainly doesn't sell any books or inspiring audio tapes. What we need to learn as a nation is how to help our children stay healthy and survive in a time of abundance when evolution has programmed their bodies to withstand scarcity. The answer is not to over burden them with obsessing over every food ingredient, and I'm not going to volunteer to hold my breath until there's less junk food available to American kids. So I think the best we can do at this point is to support programs that increase the availability of good quality food (especially that which is quick and easy to prepare) to low-income families, and to incorporate more natural activity into kids' school days. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, we need to teach all of our kids to, at least, put the Cheetos back in the cupboard when their bellies are full.

mmo : october 2005

Staci Schoff is an at-home mother of two boys. You can read more of her work on her website,, and blog. She can be contacted at

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.

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