Preventing Childhood Obesity: Recognizing Root Causes
Childhood obesity has grown to become one of the nation’s most pressing health problems. We have already seen a tremendous surge in adult obesity in the last 30 years. That rise in obesity among the adult population is shortening life expectancy and creating a terrible amount of early disease and suffering, with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, depression, sleep disturbance and degenerative bone and joint disease.
Today, at least 1/4 of American children are seriously overweight. That number is expected to rise in the future unless we can do something about it.
But how do we tackle such a difficult problem?
As with any complex multifactorial problem, the best solutions start with understanding the root causes of the problem. In the field of Public Health, we talk about the “upstream, downstream” theory. In the upstream, downstream theory we recognize that problems are usually identified at some point downstream where they have begun to cause symptoms or disturbances. Sometimes those problems (example: Heart attack) demand immediate solutions right there in the stream. However, a broader understanding and approach to a more comprehensive solution requires turning and looking upstream to the root causes of the problems (example: Smoking and obesity as causes of heart attacks). Only when we look upstream can we truly identify root causes of complex problems and begin to offer solutions.
So looking upstream at childhood obesity we see many causes.
• We see a tremendous rise in the dietary consumption of high calorie, high carbohydrate meals.
• We see portion sizes increasing in meals across the board.
• We see an influx of high calorie, high carbohydrate commercial foods being brought into the schools and displacing more traditional meals that are prepared on site with fresher ingredients.
• We see a rise in the consumption of high fructose corn syrup and sugared soft drinks.
• We see a tremendous sophisticated effort on the part of the commercial food industry to market and advertise directly to our children and promote consumption of high calorie, high carbohydrate unhealthy food.
• We even see government subsidies of corn crops, and effectively, high fructose corn syrup.
• We see falling, strained budgets for American schools and greater reliance on commercial purveyors of fast food and soft drinks to fund extracurricular activities in schools.
• We see increasing concern about outdoor safety and security for our children and less willingness to let them run loose in the streets or parks.
• We also see tremendous increase in the sophistication and appeal of video games, movies and computer entertainment, which involves very little physical exertion.
• We see a tremendous rise in the average weight of the parents of the at risk children.
Wow! That is a stunning and formidable list of root causes, and there are certainly more.
How might we tackle this problem or at least begin to make inroads?
Well, before I founded the Obesity Prevention Foundation, I grappled quite a bit with these very questions. And while certainly there are no simple solutions, the recognition of these root causes leads to some avenues for intervention that might help us turn the tide on this terrible epidemic of childhood obesity.
For one thing, we must engage as many people in our communities as possible to work collectively to fight this problem. The best solutions are going to come from many fronts and are going to include some policy changes at the levels of local and state governments, school boards and the U.S. Congress.
We are all stewards of our nation’s young people. It is in everyone’s interest that we raise a generation of healthy active kids. It helps no one to promote obesity among our young people, no matter what the short-term profits are for soft drinks or fast foods. Not even the most cynical business person would argue against the idea that our collective interests lie in raising a generation of healthier eaters and less overweight kids.
So solutions begin with raising awareness and promoting education among all of the stewards of the community. This includes business leaders who understand that an educated, productive work force comes from a healthier, normal-weight generation of kids. It comes from educating our teachers and school administrators because they play such a critical role in forming school policies and childhood education programs. It comes from engaging and educating parents who can serve as better role models and encourage healthier eating among kids. And it comes from educating legislators and political leaders who need guidance and direction about how to attack the problem most effectively.