There is an ongoing debate surrounding the rising problem of childhood obesity in the U.S. As of 2012, more than a third of all children are either overweight or obese. While the rate of childhood obesity seems to have plateaued, the number of children in the U.S. who are overweight or obese is alarming. The debate regarding who is responsible for childhood obesity is complex, and only in looking deeply into the roots of obesity can we help to resolve this issue.

On the surface, many seem to believe that parents and families are the main cause of childhood obesity. In a recent survey by SERMO, 69% of doctors and pediatricians believe that the family is either fully or mostly to blame for their children’s obesity. One doctor bluntly stated that parental behavior was clearly the main factor in environmental causes of childhood obesity, noting:

“…it’s hard not to think that in most cases the etiology is environmental. The most important component of that environment is parental control….Whether it is giving a young child a large bag of potato chips to keep him quiet in the store, or insisting she eat all her dinner, then give her dessert or multiple additional snacks, many parents have abandoned their responsibility to make the right decisions regarding their children’s health in exchange for expediency.”

Another study by the University of Houston found that even the stress that exists within a family can cause childhood obesity. Researchers found that three specific types of family stress resulted in an increase of the risk of childhood obesity:

  • Family disruption
  • Financial stress
  • Poor maternal health (specifically a risk factor for boys and obesity)

It would be easy to cite family influence as the source and cause of childhood obesity and be done with it, but the fact is that obesity is also deeply tied to systemic factors as well. Poverty and obesity are deeply and directly linked in the U.S. People living in poverty are more likely to live in low-income areas with higher crime rates and less access to fresh, healthy food. These “food deserts” force families to rely on whatever can be found at the corner store.

In addition to less access to fresh food, individuals living in poverty also live in areas that are unsafe for exercise or outdoor activity. Fitness facts relating to children are just as grim as obesity statistics, and much of this is related to living in poverty-stricken areas:

  • Just one in three children is active on a daily basis
  • Only about 20% of homes have parks within one mile
  • Screen time is on the rise, with children spending an average of seven and a half hours in front of a screen daily
  • Only six states have daily, required physical education in grades K through 12

This lack of exercise, in combination with lack of access to healthy, fresh food, creates the perfect storm of systemic environmental factors that go beyond parental influence.

How to make a difference in childhood obesity

In the end, while it is important to identify risk factors for childhood obesity, we are all responsible for the health of children in the U.S. Long-term care costs due to diabetes and heart disease are a burden shouldered by everyone, and it behooves everyone to contribute to the solution.

School- and community-based programs are a great way to start tackling this complex problem. The University of Houston study is helpful in terms of obesity prevention programs at school in that it can help focus efforts at prevention beyond simply counseling on diet and exercise. Obesity prevention programs that take family stress into account can work on wraparound services that include counseling and coping skills for children in families with the three stressors that put them at risk.

Schools can also help kids by participating in school breakfast programs. Although studies that look at these programs focus mainly on improving academic performance, it is true that those who have more education are less likely to be overweight or obese. Indirectly, these school breakfast programs are preparing kids for college in a way that also helps prevent obesity in the future.

Changing the environment in general, not just at school, may also have a positive effect on childhood obesity. One of the pediatricians surveyed by SERMO noted that environment doesn’t always just mean parental influence, but that parents can arm their kids against other environmental factors, saying:

“As parents, we have to set an example and to promote within our families healthy eating and healthy exercise. However, children are beset on all sides by their non-parental environment as well, which includes access to cheap, high-caloric foods; glitzy advertisements; a raft of screen and video entertainment; low-nutritional value school lunches; and on and on. Parents can be perfect role models, and still lose in this effort. But at least they stack the odds more favorably for their kids.”

In the home, parents can make good choices regarding the food they bring into the home. Kids can’t eat what’s not available. Stock up on fresh food when you can, and offer fruits and vegetables at every meal. Modeling healthy eating habits by snacking on fruits and vegetables and sitting down at a table to eat (instead of in front of a TV) can also help prevent childhood obesity and build good habits.

For low-income families, there are a number of resources for fresh food, including food reclamation projects like Gather Baltimore. Gather Baltimore works with a number of different grocery stores and farmers to harvest and affordably sell produce that would otherwise be thrown away. A simple Google search can locate a local food reclamation project, some of which deliver.

In the end, childhood obesity is everyone’s responsibility. For more information on how to nudge your children (or the children in your life) towards healthier food choices, take a look at these suggestions from the University of Pennsylvania.


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