Young Americans and Americans in general are experiencing a health epidemic. It’s called obesity and the rates are soaring in this country. During this past week, HBO aired a documentary called “The Weight of a Nation” that looked at obesity and its consequences on American society. Consequences According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 68.8% of Americans are overweight or obese. One segment of the show looked specifically at the consequences of obesity for children. This is where I would like to focus.
According to the statistics given in the documentary, childhood obesity rates have tripled in one generation. Over 18% of children today are obese. When this occurs, it becomes much more likely for an obese child to become an obese adult. Obesity places children and adults at a much greater risk for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, asthma, liver disease, and many other health problems. One in three children born in 2000 will acquire diabetes. According to the documentary, one in two African-American and Latino children born in 2000 will acquire diabetes. This generation of children maybe the first generation to have a shorter life span than their parents
So what is occurring? Part of it is what we eat. American children, following adults’ leads, eat more unhealthy food than healthy food. Part of this can be explained by parents buying foods that their children desire, want, and will eat based on habits and marketing. Children eat what is before them. If their parents are unhealthy eaters, children will follow suit. As part of this problem, children are bombarded by television messages telling them, showing them why they should eat xyz; how fun it is; how it will make them feel; or because their favorite cartoon character, pop star, or athlete endorse it. Many children ask for it and many parents acquiesce.
Certainly convenience, cost, and false marketing that states “how good” certain foods are for children is also to blame. The documentary pointed out that the food industry has very little oversight in how it markets its product. For example, sugary cereals can state they are a good source of fiber or certain vitamins, while still being a way too sugary cereal for healthy breakfast consumption. Beliefs that a product extension from what one believes to be a ‘healthy’ product can also become an issue. I fell into that trap when I though a V-8 product known as Splash would be good for my child. Wow, was I wrong once I read the label at home! Unhealthy school lunches and sugar or corn syrup laden juices and ‘sports drinks’ are also part of the unhealthy foods our children regularly consume, adding up to excessive, excessive calories.
A much more sedentary lifestyle is also part of the problem. Americans are eating and consuming more calories than they burn. Children are watching more television than ever before with the documentary citing 4.5 hours of television consumption as the norm. This does not take into account overall media consumption, with computer, cell phone, and video game usage, included. Children are not as physically active as generations past, who jumped rope; walked to school; came in from outside when the street lights came on; or had required gym class, not mandatory in most states in the country. Many parents fear what will happen to their children if they play outside out of site or walk to school by themselves. Very bluntly and frankly stated, maybe parents need to be more afraid of what will happen if their children become obese?
The cost to individuals and our country as a whole are high. If this trend continues, health and economic costs will disable the nation, both figuratively and literally. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, strokes, and sleep apnea will be the norm not the exception affecting more and more individuals, families, businesses, communities and the entire nation. The documentary suggests that some of the answers may lie in self-control; increased exercise; further healthy regulation of school lunches and marketing of foods, particularly marketing of foods to children; and emphasizing local foods and farms over the large corporate model. Part of the problem is also that healthy food tends to cost more (or is it that profits are inflated?) thus fewer people can afford it. Obesity is definitely a complex problem. What this documentary clearly shows is that to continue to ignore this problem as a country will do us in.