Childhood Obesity: Are We Killing Our Kids?

By Martin Brown

Cynthia*, a single mom, asked me recently if I agreed with Michelle Bridges recent article in EssentialBaby.com in which she asked the provocative question, “Is Junk Food Child Abuse?”

According to the CDC, “Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years increased from 5.0% to 18.1%.” If that’s not cause for concern I can’t imagine what is.

What concerns exactly? Well here are just a few:

In a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Additionally, the CDC reports, “Children and adolescents who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem. And as adults, obese youth are more likely than youth of normal weight to become overweight or obese adults, and therefore more at risk for associated adult health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.”

A significant additional concern is the rapid growth of type 2 diabetes, which previously occurred only in adults, but now is appearing in children as young as age nine!

The numbers showing that childhood obesity has more than tripled in three decades alone should tell you that unless there was an outrageous uptick in “child abuse” in the last three decades, there is something more afoot here than neglectful moms. The same questionable logic appears when Bridges wrote, “We know now through scientific research that overweight parents potentially pass on their propensity to become obese to their children.”

While genetics provides a convenient explanation it strikes many as a rather suspect one. A mother who is obese is more likely to have obese children because of the food she buys and the poor dietary habits she unknowingly teaches her offspring than any genetic time bomb she supposedly passes along.

But what Cynthia, who is clearly troubled by the fact that both of her daughters, age eight and ten, are substantially overweight, wants to know is what can she do to help her kids lower their weight.

As we spoke it became clear that there are a number of things she could as a mom do to slow and reverse her children’s impending health dilemma. First, Cynthia needed to get the sodas and juice boxes out of the house. Everyday both kids were exposed to significant amounts of sugar from that one source alone. Government nutritional labeling requires that a Coke, 7-Up, Mountain Dew, etc., reveal that they have (approximately) 40 grams of sugar per 12-oz. can. What the government does not require is that they explain to buyers that 40 grams is the equivalent of ten teaspoons of sugar!

Another simple step for Cynthia to follow is to replace unhealthy snacks, chips, crackers, cookies, etc., that she buys with healthy choices from oranges, to bananas, to single portion cups of natural apple sauce.

Most of us forget that if junk food is not brought into the house in the first place, you have won more than half of the obesity battle. In modern society, however, that’s just half of the picture. From unhealthy choices at school to all the other unhealthy options after school and on weekends, that’s the other half. So what is a concerned parent to do?

For this, single mom’s have to depend on the power of two important factors, one, talking regularly with kids about healthy eating and two, modeling that behavior for the children to follow. Talking to your kids about thoughtful eating will not succeed if you take them out on a Friday night and make one unwise food choice after another. Ordering the cheese covered nachos, the Big Mac, the Chocolate Carmel Frappuccino, is sending the message of “Do as I say, not as I do.” The worst possible message any parent can send.

It’s doubtful we’ll see unhealthy food options disappear in the near future, so add to the list of all the things a single mom has to do to raise happy and healthy kids the need to be vigilant about what they eat and what they bring into the home. Is junk food a form of child abuse? Overall I’d have to agree. But the real abuse is committed by corporations that are spending tens of millions of dollars marketing unhealthy food to children in exchange for billions of dollars in profits. The best a mom can do is not be an accomplice to this abuse.

*Not her real name.

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Martin Brown is the Heath Channel Editor for SingleMindedWomen.com, and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Finding Mr. Right.

His latest book is Fit in 50 Days.