Most of us are aware that we’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic. And while we can’t open a newspaper or turn on a computer without a reminder, the problem is still continuing to grow. A recent article in the UK newspaper, The Guardian, predicts that two-thirds of children and 9 out of 10 adults will be obese by 2050 in the UK. As the statistical leader of this growing (pun intended) trend, what does that say about the United States?
Critics may call those projections inflammatory, but looking at even the most conservative numbers should cause concern. Nationwide, obesity rates range between 17 and 30 percent, with some demographics exceeding 40 percent. Estimated health care costs of this epidemic range in the billions. Life expectancy rates for our youngest generation are lower than those of their parents for the first time in recorded history. The leader of the epidemic, the USA, has seen its status fall from one of the world’s healthiest countries to the least healthy country in the developed world. We’re far beyond a time when bickering about statistics and numbers even matters. One look around at a mall, an airport, or a school informs us that things aren’t as they should be. There is no longer a question of whether it needs national attention. We need to reverse this trend ASAP. But we can’t change what we don’t understand, so let’s examine the major questions and concerns we have about obesity. Then, we’ll take a look at what we can do about it.
Is the problem exercise or diet related?
It’s both. There is no question about obesity following the pattern of fast food dispersal; all you have to do is look at a map to see that the trend follows these restaurants. However, the latest studies are showing that even with the addition of Big Macs and Big Gulps, caloric consumption is not going up as much as exercise levels are coming down.
Recent studies by British medical journal The Lancet, the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition have all consistently shown that exercise is the central determinant of whether children are overweight. The figures show that kids are consuming approximately 3 percent more calories than they did in the 1970s, but getting a whopping average of 20 percent less exercise. And obese kids are 70 percent more likely to become obese adults.
But even though lack of exercise takes the brunt of the responsibility, it doesn’t mean that dietary habits should be ignored. The increase in the number of calories eaten doesn’t reflect the type of calories that are consumed. For example, various studies estimate that soda makes up around 15 percent of the caloric intake of teenagers and around 10 percent that of adults in America. The health implications of these statistics are dire, as this habit makes it nearly impossible for a person’s diet to be balanced—and that’s before we even consider how much calorie-free soda is being added to the mix.
The following study exemplifies the solution, which requires changing both our exercise and dietary habits. In Colac, Australia, 1,800 children, aged 2 to 12, followed a program that included a restricted diet (no carbonated drinks or sweets) and increased exercise. Results included a 68 percent increase in after-school activity program participation, a 21 percent reduction in television viewing, and an average 1 kilogram weight reduction compared to the control group.
For richer and for poorer
Historically, only lower-income groups had a major problem with obesity. This statistic is rapidly changing. In the early 1970s, 22.5 percent of people with incomes below $25,000 were obese, while just 9.7 percent of people with incomes over $60,000 were obese. Obvious contributing factors were education, more involved parenting, and having the means for being proactive toward child care. Today, however, the obesity rate is growing the fastest among Americans who make more than $60,000 a year.
Since higher-income groups tend to eat “healthier,” or at least can afford to change their diets more easily, this is another signal that our exercise habits have become dangerous. Some telltale signs of this reversal of fortune are based around money. Kids with the greatest access to TV, computers, and video games have more excuses not to get outside and move. Another curse of the privileged is the declining number of children who walk or bike to school. There’s nothing like trading in a couple hours of movement each day for playing with a Game Boy® in an idling SUV for regressing a child’s metabolic process. In addition to a declining number of recess periods and poor school lunch programs, we’re setting our children up with an ideal recipe for type 2 diabetes.
The number of obese children is still rising among all socioeconomic classes, and it will keep growing unless lifestyle changes are made and people become more aware of the situation. No economic class is immune to obesity. Especially hard on the lower classes is the fact that the least healthy foods also tend to be the cheapest, making it very difficult for children from that socioeconomic background to eat properly. Cheap foods tend to have a higher sugar content than natural, healthy food. There is only one way to combat a high-sugar diet, and that’s with a lot of rigorous exercise.
It’s about more than a ripped body
It’s not just about looks, as obesity affects more than your physique. It increases your risk for a number of diseases, including diabetes, stroke, insulin resistance, and hypertension. Obesity carried into midlife may also have damaging effects on the brain.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 61 percent of obese young people have at least one additional risk factor for heart disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Additionally, children who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems. Obese young people are more likely than children of normal weight to become overweight or obese adults and are, therefore, more at risk for associated adult health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.
10 solutions for obesity
- No bottles before bed. In fact, no bottle at all seems like a better bet, as kids who are breast-fed are less likely to be obese. A bevy of recent studies, which show infant obesity rates as high as 44 percent in some demographics, has linked a large part of the problem to sending infants to bed with a bottle. Not only is the child getting more calories, it’s creating a learned response to eat before bed that is hard to reverse as the child gets older. Infants should have some body fat, but an obese infant is more than twice as likely to grow into an obese adolescent, who is more than twice as likely to become an obese adult.
- Turn off the TV. The American Journal of Public Healthpublished a survey stating that 59 percent of children watched between 2 and 4 hours of television, and an additional 22 percent watched 5 or more hours of TV per day. That’s a lot—let me say it again, A LOT—of TV, and this, apparently, didn’t account for time in front of a computer. Chances are that turning off your TV isn’t going to sit well with your kids, so here is some ammunition that will make it easier on both of you.
Staying thin will increase your child’s confidence level. Researchers surveyed 1,520 children, ages 9 to 10, with a 4-year follow-up, and discovered a positive correlation between obesity and low self-esteem. They also discovered that decreased self-esteem led to 19 percent of obese children feeling sad, 48 percent of them feeling bored, and 21 percent of them feeling nervous. In comparison, 8 percent of normal-weight children felt sad, 42 percent of them felt bored, and 12 percent of them felt nervous.
- Walk to school (or at least some of the way). This alone could make one of the biggest differences in activity levels. A generation ago, most self-respecting parents would laugh at their child’s suggestion to drive them to school. Nowadays, lines of SUVs stretch out for blocks around campuses filled with kids burning nary a calorie while waiting to be dropped off on the front step of the school. In some neighborhoods, this lost time alone is plenty to fill the child’s exercise requirement.Lack of busing can shoulder some of the blame, but the primary reason seems to be fear. The world has gotten scary, or so we think, and parents drive their kids to keep them safe. In reality, the damage done from lack of activity is putting them at far more risk. According to former Department of Justice statistician Callie Rennison, our fears are mainly based on sensationalism in the media, which indicates that child abduction plays well in the ratings. “99.9 percent of child abduction cases are family related,” she states. “Statistically, our kids are much safer in public than they’ve ever been.”
Numbers aside, most parents will likely balk at the idea of making their kids the lab rats in some “walking to school” experiment. But, at least, you can drop them off close to school. The last part of the commute, the part while you’re waiting in line, is a place where your kids could be moving in what is probably one of the safest situations imaginable—a line of cars filled with highly protective parents.
- Fight for recess. As schools’ budgets dwindle because “results” are based on test scores, “optional” classes like recess are being cut. But it can be argued that recess is one of the most important classes your child has. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, it’s not just how much children exercise that counts but how long they exercise that’s important. Kids should not exercise for prolonged periods of time. They benefit far more from short bursts of exercise throughout the day. This is the reason that recess periods have been included throughout a typical school day—those recess periods that are now being threatened if they aren’t already gone.
Besides the obvious positive effects of recess, it has also been shown to reduce stress. And stress can influence a child’s eating habits. Researchers tested the stress inventory of 28 college females and discovered that those who were binge eating had a mean of 29.65 points on the perceived stress scale, compared to the control group who had a mean of 15.19 points.
- Reform your school lunch program. Brown bagging is back, at least until you can fix your school cafeteria. Having your child bring his or her lunch from home can ensure that they’re eating well. School cafeterias have been getting progressively worse. Despite the huge successes enjoyed by some that have switched to healthier menus, most feel too restricted by budgets and bottom lines not to farm out their concessions to the lowest bidder.
We tend to forget that parents have some say in this. Whether your child goes to public or private school, each school is accountable to its community base. Parents have banded together in many communities to change their school’s nutritional structure. You can too.
- Get more sleep. A Northwestern University study indicates that inadequate sleep has a negative impact on children’s performance in school and on their emotional and social welfare, and increases their risk of being overweight. This study was the first nationally represented, longitudinal investigation on the correlation between sleep, body mass index, and being overweight in children between the ages of 3 and 18. The study found that an extra hour of sleep lowered the children’s risk of being overweight from 36 percent to 30 percent, while it lessened older children’s risk from 34 percent to 30 percent.
- Stop drinking sugar. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that many children get most of their calories from beverages, when they’d be better off getting them from fresh fruit and other healthy solid foods. Most of these calories come from soda, but some of the blame lies with other healthier-sounding beverages, like juice and sports drinks. Take a look at the orange juice label. This former icon of a nutritious breakfast, which is still praised in some less-enlightened cultures, is mainly sugar. The refining process has leeched most of its useful ingredients and all of the fiber, turning a perfectly healthy food, an orange, into little more than a sugar rush. Sports drinks can be beneficial when you’re playing sports, but, at any other time, they’re about the worst thing you can consume. Our nutritional needs change during exercise, when we need a lot of sugar and salt. When we aren’t exercising, those nutrients in excess are dangerous.
- Sign up for something. Our bodies are meant to move, and nothing makes this as easy as doing something fun. Not all of us are good at sports, but almost everyone has an aptitude for some physical activity. Start children early by allowing them to experiment with different activities. The more they try, the easier it will be for you to see which activities they excel at and which they don’t. A more benign approach to the old East German method of finding athletes at a young age, it’s a great parenting tool because it helps you guide them into things they’ll do well at. They get exposed to different things, get some exercise, and, in the end, you’ll probably find something they’ll be good at—or at least decent—which will help their self-esteem as they develop. It’s hard for kids to understand why they’re bad at something. This tactic can help them see how the human body is designed and why it’s normal to be different. We can’t all be the star quarterback, but we can all be the star something, which will be a lot easier to achieve if you’re aiming for something you have an aptitude for.Don’t be afraid to think outside the box here. Martial arts, snowboarding, swimming, dancing, gymnastics, cycling, and rock climbing are all just as effective as football and soccer for building healthy bodies.
- Get outside. Besides chasing fast food distribution, an easy way to map the obesity trend is to follow demographics indicating that we spend less and less time outdoors. Nature forces us into action. It expands our minds to the world around us and teaches us to be less fearful. Shoot, just standing around outside burns calories, especially as the weather changes.
There are an endless number of outdoor activities you can choose from, but the simplest, hiking, is one of the best activities you can do. Not only does it force you to learn more about your world, it’s great exercise, especially if you live around hills or mountains. It builds motor skills because you climb on rocks and trees, etc. For your kids, it’s a learning tool because you’ll encounter the natural world and, most likely, develop an interest in the way it works. You don’t need to have Yosemite in your backyard to enjoy hiking. Any city park will do. Natural wonders abound in all settings.
- Get a home fitness program. We even know where you can find some. Nothing beats home fitness in both cost and time efficiency. From Kathy Smith’s Project:YOU! Type 2® to Hip Hop Abs® to 10-Minute Trainer®, and P90X®, there’s a home fitness solution that will fit your lifestyle like a glove. Most home fitness programs allow you to finish your exercise requirement in less time than it would take to drive to a gym. A proper program is researched to be time-efficient and will also come with dietary suggestions to match the program. No other option comes close to home fitness when you need to squeeze a lifestyle change into an already booked schedule.