How to Address the Crisis of Childhood Obesity
December 26, 2015
By Dr. Mercola
According to the latest statistics,1 about 75 percent of American men and 67 percent of women are either overweight or obese. This means less than one-third of US adults are at a healthy weight.
The statistics for children are equally disturbing. Over 17 percent of American children between the ages of 2 and 19 fall into the obese category, which can set them up for a lifetime of very serious health problems.
“The Weight of the Nation: Children in Crisis” is the third episode of a four-part HBO documentary series2 about obesity in America. You can view the first part here.
This episode hones in on childhood obesity, highlighting the need to become better educated about weight, as it’s really about health, not mere appearance.
As the filmmakers note:3
“The health consequences of childhood obesity include greater risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and other serious illnesses.
The combination of these health effects and the dramatic increase in childhood obesity rates over the past three decades causes some experts to fear this may be the first generation of American children who will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents ...
For parents of obese children, responsible parenting means more than tackling health challenges head on. It also means doing the hard work of finding supportive, healthy communities that will instill long-term habits that promote healthy living.”
Obesity is closely tied to a number of chronic diseases. In the US, eight obesity-related diseases account for 75 percent of all healthcare costs.
This includes type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and dementia. About one-third of all cancers are also directly related to obesity.
When you consider that two hallmarks of obesity are insulin/leptin resistance and chronic inflammation, you can begin to recognize that excess weight is fertile ground for a wide array of other ailments — many of which can cut your life significantly short.
Obese children significantly increase their risk of suffering obesity-related illnesses and complications far earlier in life than others.
Case in point: research4 presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2015 revealed obese children as young as 8 now display signs of heart disease!
Processed Food Diet Is at the Heart of the Childhood Obesity Epidemic
The long-held conventional view that obesity is either the result of "bad genetics" or poor lifestyle choices, combined with a certain amount of laziness or lack of willpower, has now largely been debunked.
The fact that obesity rates 50 to 60 years ago were only one-third of what they are today is a potent clue that genetics are not to blame. Also, a number of other affluent nations do not have the same obesity problems as the U.S.
For example, the obesity rate among Japanese and Swedish women is 3 and 10 percent respectively,5 compared to 37 percent in the U.S. Furthermore, when people from such countries move to the US, they typically end up gaining significant amounts of weight.
This tells us there's something in the American diet that is different from other nations, in which people do not have the same level of difficulty with their weight.
The diet connection can also be seen in the disparities between the rich and the poor. Poorer Americans have higher rates of obesity, whereas poor people in developing nations tend to be underweight from lack of food.
The hallmark of the Standard American Diet (SAD) is that it’s very high in non-fiber carb processed foods, and the evidence clearly points to sugar-laden processed foods as a primary culprit. Americans also rarely ever fast, which compounds the problem.
Junk Food Marketing Has Great Influence on Kids’ Eating Habits
Food marketing expenditures are quite telling. In 2009, a whopping $1.7 billion was spent on unhealthy food marketing to kids, compared to a mere $280 million spent on healthy food ads.
Kids aren’t even safe from predatory marketing at school.
In 2009, companies spent $149 million marketing soda and other sugary drinks in schools, and on average these drinks contained 16 or more grams of sugar per serving — an amount that meets or exceeds the maximum daily recommended sugar intake for most kids.
A large number of studies have also confirmed that sugary beverages in particular are strongly associated with obesity, and this is NOT limited to soda.
Fruit juices will in many instances contain nearly identical amounts of sugar as soda, yet many parents are still under the illusion that fruit juice is “healthy,” and fail to consider these beverages when looking for dietary culprits for their child’s weight gain.
To prevent obesity and chronic disease, the World Health Organization6 (WHO) suggests limiting your sugar consumption to a maximum of 5 percent of your daily calories, which equates to about 25 grams/6 teaspoons7 of sugar per day for most adults.
The limit for children is around 3 to 4 teaspoons a day,8 or 12 to 16 grams. So just one sugary beverage can easily put a child over the limit of what their body can safely handle without adverse health effects.
Other junk foods also feature heavily in schools. According to the featured video, “20 percent of the rise in the BMI of teens is associated with the increased availability of junk food in schools.”
The film also addresses the issue of school lunches, discussing the impact inferior school nutrition on the childhood obesity epidemic.
Children Need Greater Protection from Junk Food Marketing
As detailed in the video, in July 2011, the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG) — which was created by Congress — proposed nutrition standards for children that would lower the levels of salt, sugar, and fat in foods allowed to be marketed to kids.
The proposal was wildly unpopular with the food industry, and by March 2012, when the HBO filmed this segment, the IWG’s food marketing report was essentially “dead.” To this day, food companies are given free rein to determine for themselves which of their products they consider “healthy.”
Now a panel of experts convened by the Healthy Eating Research program is calling for increased protection for children from predatory junk food marketing. According to the Healthy Eating Research report9 published in January 2015, the industry’s current voluntary self-regulation program doesn’t go far enough to protect children.
In addition to being susceptible to marketing overall, adolescents are especially susceptible to marketing for tempting foods that require well-developed self-regulatory abilities to resist. At the same time, older kids are exposed to stealth forms of marketing in social media that may be disguised as entertainment or even messages from peers. According to the report:
“Children ages 12 to 14 face heightened risk from the influence of unhealthy food marketing due to their greater independence, higher levels of media consumption, and recent increases in the amount of marketing to children ages 12 and older for unhealthy food and beverage products.”
Parents Are Fooled by Food Advertisements Too
Parents are also deceived by the food industry’s PR machine. Junk food ads cleverly manipulate parents into making unhealthy choices for their kids10 while believing they’re doing the right thing. As noted by CNN:11
"It is a dual-pronged approach where food manufacturers are targeting kids to pester (their parents) for these products, and then manufacturers are marketing to parents to get them to think these products are healthy and not to feel guilty about buying them …”Perhaps one of the easiest ways to avoid falling into this trap is to realize that if there’s a commercial for it, you and your kids probably shouldn’t be eating it!
[P]arent-directed ads emphasized health benefits and nutritional information for the products ... However, a recent report ... found that many of the products that are advertised to children, such as sugar-sweetened juice beverages and cereals, do not meet federal standards for healthy snacks. And ... the ads that parents are seeing are for these same products.”
Why? Because only processed foods are heavily marketed, and if you’re concerned about your child’s health and weight, then processed foods of all kinds, no matter what the ads promise, are the enemy. Your fridge and pantry needs to be stocked with REAL food, meaning foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.
Excessive Sitting Harms Children’s Health
As noted in the featured video, many kids form sedentary habits in childhood that are then carried into adulthood. Over the last couple of decades, physical activity has declined across all age groups in the US, but children are perhaps at greatest risk from chronic inactivity.
As noted by Christina Economos, PhD, we now see toddlers and young children engaged in sedentary behavior anywhere from four to eight hours a day; glued to either television or electronic games. The likelihood of inactive children to get into sports or exercise later on is severely compromised, and with it, their health.
We now have more than 10,000 studies showing that chronic sitting is an independent risk factor for poor health and mortality — on par with smoking — so inactivity in childhood really needs to be addressed. Fortunately some school districts are switching to standup desks.12
Unfortunately, in addition to not having stand up desks, many schools have eliminated recess and/or physical education as a cost-saving measure, which significantly adds to the problem. In my view, this trend is really unconscionable, and needs to be reversed.
But, we don’t have time to wait for the school system to change. If your child does not get copious amounts of physical activity at school, it’s really important for you to encourage your child to stay active after school and on weekends.
How to Get Your Kids Moving
First, it's imperative to limit the amount of time your child spends watching TV, or playing computer and video games, and to replace some of these sedentary activities with physical activities.
Overweight and obese children need at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, and may benefit from closer to 60 minutes. But, even if your child is not overweight, you should encourage him or her to take part in physically engaging activities after school and on the weekends.
There are plenty to choose from, from sports and dance classes to gymnastics, bike riding, and playing tag with friends. Allow your child to choose activities that appeal to them, and which are age appropriate. Remember that the trick to getting kids interested in exercise at a young age is to keep it fun.
Also, keep in mind that spontaneous bouts of exercise throughout the day are actually the ideal way of doing it.Your child does not need to log 30 to 60 minutes in the gym or in a specific exercise class, unless that's really what they want to do. A game of tag here, a bike ride there ...
Short bursts of activity with periods of rest in between — this is actually the way your body was designed to move! And, kids will typically fall into this behavior quite spontaneously, as long as they're outdoors, and not cooped up in front of a TV or computer screen. Like adults, kids also need variety in their exercise routines to reap the greatest rewards, so be sure your child is getting:
This may sound daunting, but if your child participates in a gymnastics class, sprints around the backyard after the dog often, and rides his bike after school, he's covered. Also remember that acting as a role model by staying active yourself is one of the best ways to motivate and inspire your kids. If your child sees you embracing exercise as a positive and important part of your lifestyle, they will naturally follow suit.
- Interval training
- Strength training
- Core-building activities
Plus, it's easy to plan active activities that involve the whole family and double up as fun ways to spend time together. Hiking, bike riding, canoeing, swimming, and sports are all great options. Think of it this way … by taking the time to get your kids interested in exercise now, you're giving them a gift that will keep them healthy and happy for the rest of their lives.
Most Importantly, to Reverse Obesity Trend We Must Return to a Diet of Real Food
Researchers have firmly debunked the myth that all calories are identical, and that to lose weight all you need to do is expend more calories than you consume.
Research shows that what you eat can actually make a big difference in how much you eat. In a nutshell, research shows that calories gleaned from bread, refined sugars, and processed foods promote overeating, whereas calories from whole vegetables, protein, and fiber decrease hunger.
While it’s true that most kids exercise too little, it’s important to realize that your child cannot exercise his or her way out of a poor and metabolically “toxic” diet. Over the past 60 years or so, a confluence of dramatically altered foods combined with reduced physical exertion and increased exposure to toxic chemicals have created what amounts to a perfect storm.
The extensive use of refined sugar — primarily in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, which is added to virtually all processed foods — is at the heart of it all. Fortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now recommending a daily cap on added sugars, and food manufacturers may soon have to list the amount of added sugars on the nutritional facts label.13
The recommended goal is to limit added sugar to a maximum of 10 percent of daily calories. While reading labels can help, the easiest way to do this is to eat REAL food. Obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, and heart attacks are all diseases associated with a processed food diet.
The following short list of just three super-simple, easy-to-remember guidelines will not only improve your family’s nutrition, it will also help you avoid chemical exposures that can affect weight:
- Eat REAL FOOD. Buy whole, ideally organic, foods and cook from scratch. First of all, this will automatically reduce your added sugar consumption, which is the root cause of insulin resistance and weight gain.If you buy organic produce, you’ll also cut your exposure to pesticides and genetically engineered ingredients, and in ditching processed foods, you’ll automatically avoid artificial sweeteners and harmful processed fats. For more detailed dietary advice, please see my free Optimized Nutrition Plan.
- Opt for organic grass-finished meats to avoid genetically engineered ingredients, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other growth promoting drugs.
- Opt for glass packaging and storage containers to avoid endocrine disrupting chemicals.