Why Childhood Obesity Levels are Rising

A friend recently told me that her son was being teased unmercifully in school for being overweight. Being a mother myself, I understand how painful it can be to see one's child suffer that way. However, there are other things that the parents of an overweight child should be concerned about besides social oppression.

Obese children tend to have higher blood pressure and higher cholesterol levels than children of normal weight, according to a study on juvenile obesity published in the 1991 Physician and Sports Medicine Journal.

Last month, heart surgeons at the American Heart Association (AHA) Convention reported that they have been discovering an increasing number of child heart transplant donors with plaque-coated blood vessels.

The other consequences of being a fat child, according to Dr. Ming-kai Chin of the Hong Kong Institute of Education (AsiaFit Magazine, March 1997) are orthopedic problems, abnormal sugar metabolism, and persistence of obesity into adulthood.

No wonder health experts like Dr. Robert Girandola of the University of Southern California are concerned with the rising levels of childhood obesity worldwide. Girandola presented slide after slide of depressing statistics in his lecture as a resource speaker for the 1999 AsiaFit Convention in Hong Kong two weeks ago. He pointed out that the disturbing trend of obesity in adults as well as children is not just happening in the United States and European countries like Italy, England, and Spain but in Asian countries as well. He said that in spite of the increased interest in non-fat and sugar-free food, diet pills, diet books and fitness equipment, obesity levels continue to rise.

Health experts are pessimistic about solving the obesity problem. Speaking about American children, Dr. James Hill of the University of Colorado wrote in the journal Science, "We've got the fattest, least fit generation of kids ever". Hill stressed that if conditions remained the same; the next generation would be even fatter.

John Foreyt of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston told Shape Magazine that based on the existing figures, he believes all Americans will be obese in about two centuries. He went as far as predicting that thin people would be the exception to the rule and would be considered "freaks of nature".

One might be tempted to say, "Well, that is America's problem. It won't happen to us". Unfortunately, statistics show that the obesity is a worldwide problem. America may be years ahead but the rest of the world will eventually catch up as technology makes life more sedentary and more people eat high-calorie, high-fat diets the way the Americans do.

Modern lifestyle cause of obesity.
The reason obesity will be so hard to cure is because it is our modern lifestyle that is causing it. Girandola said that the more comfortable our lives become because of technology, the fatter we will become. Both children and adults are less physically active now than they were in the past decades. The Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Philippines reported in the 1998 Asian Conference on Early and Childhood Nutrition that the most common leisure activities of Filipino children ages 8 to 10 were playing computer games, reading and watching television.

The other reason for obesity is what Girandola calls an "unprecedented access to widely available, high-calorie, low cost, heavily promoted and good tasting food". He was referring, of course, to the 20th century phenomenon of 'fast food' and 'junk food'.

Picture a child sitting in front of a TV with one hand inside a bag of potato chips and another holding a soft drink and you have a simplistic explanation of why children everywhere are getting fatter.

Is the food industry partly to blame?
Because young children and teenagers are greatly affected by advertising, many experts feel the food industry is partly to blame for the rising obesity levels, Girandola said. These experts feel that the fast food chains and snack food manufacturers are responsible for promoting high-fat and high-calorie food. One expert has gone as far as proposing that the government should regulate commercial food advertising that targets children.

Parents should take the greater part of the blame.
It's true that it's hard to teach children proper nutrition when they are bombarded daily with advertising jingles and promotions for high-calorie fast food or snack food. However, parents are also to blame because they are the ones who buy these types of food for their youngsters on a regular basis. A mother once complained to me that her son was addicted to potato chips and wanted advice on what to do about it. I asked who was buying her son the chips. Boy, did she have a sheepish look on her face. There wasn't much to say after that.

Another time, I was interviewing a mother of an obese two-year old who was convinced that her son was fat because he had inherited "bad" genes from her husband's family who were all overweight. It was difficult to keep a straight face because the toddler had his mouth full of potato chips. The mother couldn't see anything wrong with giving her young son soft drinks with his meals and chocolates and ice cream for dessert on a daily basis. How could she see anything wrong with what she was doing when that's exactly how she and her husband ate? What hope would this little boy have of ever being a normal weight when his mother was the one who was sabotaging his health?

The reason many children have poor exercise and eating habits is that they have learned those habits from their parents. Children may not always listen to what we have to say to them but they will surely follow what they see us do.

A Filipino endocrinologist who deals with obese children once said that his young patients are not the problem. It's the parents he has problems with. They are the ones who encourage the child to finish their food even when they aren't hungry. They are the ones who buy junk food to bring home and then expect the child to somehow have the discipline to not eat it.

Childhood obesity a serious matter.
Having a fat child is much more serious than just comforting them when they are teased by bullies at school. Their being overweight can damage much more than just their young egos. Their very health is at risk. Childhood obesity becomes more difficult to treat when the child grows up to be an obese adult. In an interview with Reuters, Hill said, "I think obesity is a difficult situation to reverse once it's there." He believes that the only way to stop the upward trend of worldwide obesity is to "save the kids".

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