Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled over the past 30 years, and today one-third of American children are considered overweight or obese. How did we get here?
There is no single cause.
We’re not going to have an “aha” moment, one thing we can point to and fix that will turn the tide and roll back these statistics – and their very real impact on children’s health. Instead, we need to recognize the multiple factors that contribute to unhealthy lifestyles and weight gain in children.
I’ve identified four factors that have contributed to getting us where we are today.
1. Nutrition and Diet
Over time, portion sizes have increased and Americans are more likely to eat at a restaurant or bring home take-out food. In addition, we’re eating more calorie-dense processed foods, including microwavable meals, that have lower nutritional value.
As this shift has happened, many Americans have also valued quantity over the quality of food.
At the same time, many children (particularly in inner cities) have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Meanwhile, unhealthy foods, including fast food and sugary cereals and snacks, are heavily marketed to children. As they grow into teenagers they are exposed to fad diets and weight loss medications and may favor these options over nutrition and exercise.
2. School Life
Schools can be a minefield of vending machines with candy, snacks and sodas. Major food and beverage companies offer big bucks to schools to display and sell their goods. For struggling schools, the temptation can be difficult to resist.
Meanwhile, budget cuts affect school lunches (and children then get less healthy meals) and lead to cutbacks in physical education programs. Shrinking school budgets also mean that students are less likely to learn in school about how to prevent childhood obesity through health or nutrition classes.
3. Community Influences
Fewer children today walk or bike to school for safety reasons, including poorly maintained or poorly designed roads and sidewalks. They also have less access to safe parks and recreation areas.
In other words, children are becoming less physically active while at the same time being bombarded with ads for sugary snacks and fast foods.
In addition, childhood obesity and technology are linked as children are less likely to engage in physical play if they’re using a computer, tablet, or smartphone or playing video games.
4. Family Environment
Families used to sit down to dinner together. As that has shifted, children are more likely to eat in from of the TV or computer. The lack of supervised meals encourages processed foods, snacks, and overeating.
The increasing “go, go, go” mentality of family life is also increasing stress and limiting time for healthy activity and rest.
You can make a difference.
Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition, so it’s important to identify the contributing factors and work to change the dynamics that put kids at risk.
As a parent, you have tremendous leverage to improve the health of your overweight child. The sooner you start, the easier it will be to effect long-lasting change.