We Need to Think Big on Childhood Obesity
Michael Bloomberg’s recent proposal to ban the sale of super-sized sugary drinks brought a wave of attention to the nation’s ongoing struggle with obesity. The controversy is both good and bad, but the conversation is critical. The way we deal with this health crisis now will decide whether the next generation can have a healthy and happy future.
A third of American kids are overweight or obese. One out of three. You may have seen that statistic while reading about Bloomberg’s proposal, or Disney’s announcement that, in the interest of children’s health, it will no longer advertise junk food on any of its channels. Or maybe you watched HBO’s documentary series, Weight of the Nation. Surely you’ve seen an ad for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. The point is, childhood obesity is in the public consciousness right now. And that’s a good thing, because without more public awareness of the causes of this epidemic, the problem will continue to worsen.
Unfortunately, this problem will not have a simple solution, at either the family, local, or national level, and parents should understand that there is no quick fix. Getting kids more active will be part of the solution. Eliminating soda and juice from kids’ daily diet will be part of the solution. Limiting kids’ exposure to advertising for unhealthy foods will be part of the solution. But when I interviewed Louise Pencavel about her documentary, The Parents’ Survival Guide: Childhood Obesity, I learned that we also have to make sure that any single measure doesn’t overshadow the whole picture.
Pencavel’s film lays out all of the startling facts about childhood obesity and then explores current theories on both how to treat and prevent it. I asked her, “After all your research, what do you think is the most important change we need to make in kids’ lifestyles?” She said she started out asking the same question herself, but learned that it actually reflects a dangerous way of thinking about solutions.
“To put relative weight on any of the pieces undermines the idea that there are all these little things, working together, that affect weight,” she said. “It’s like if you were going camping for the first time and you asked, well what’s the most important thing I should pack, and if someone says, ‘Water,’ you just bring water, but you don’t bring sunscreen, or food, or a map. Water might be the most important, but you still need all the other things.”
Pencavel pointed out all that has happened since the1960s, when obesity rates began their sharp rise: Unhealthy food has gotten cheaper and cheaper; the food industry has made products so delicious that they are borderline addictive; kids watch more TV than ever, making them less active, exposing them to way more food advertising, and disrupting their natural ability to regulate their appetite, because eating in front of the TV (or the computer, for that matter) overwhelms the brain’s satiety cues. Add to all that schools’ eliminating PE, and you have just a short list of what we’re up against.
I didn't realize until I watched the documentary and talked to Pencavel how big and pervasive the roots of the obesity epidemic are. I understand the compulsion—really I should say, the necessity—to reduce the problem to manageable parts, which is why I admire any effort to attack any of the factors contributing to childhood obesity. So I'm not arguing that focusing on the negative health effects of sugary beverages, for example, detracts from the over-all goal of reducing obesity. I'm just advocating that we frame all these measures properly.
We need more public education on the big picture, on all of the habits we'll have to break and all of the habits we'll have to instill in our kids in order to protect them from obesity. There is great work being done to fight obesity, but unfortunately it doesn't always get the same kind of media attention as Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign. Through the Healthy Schools Program, for example, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation is working with teachers and principals to make comprehensive health plans for individual schools. These plans get students more active, provide them with healthy food options, and, most importantly, teach them how to manage their own health. If every school could do this for their students, 20 ounce sodas might eventually disappear on their own from lack of demand. As a country, we still have a lot of work to do to get there.