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Is childhood obesity more than a parenting issue?

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  July 26, 2010 12:35 PM

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Though the majority of weight-loss and anti-obesity initiatives emphasize exercise and healthy eating, a seminar last month at The Children's Museum in Boston made me wonder if childhood obesity is more than just a matter of too much junk food and TV time. Is it -- along with crime, education, and access to medical care -- a social justice issue as well?

The seminar -- "SuperSize Me: The Social Context of the Childhood Obesity Epidemic" -- was presented by Dr. Elizabeth Goodman and Dr. Beth DeFrino, who discussed the ways that our social and biological environments affect our health. It's more far-reaching than one would think: With cash-strapped schools cutting recess and sports programs in order to make ends meet, children are spending more sedintary time at their desks and less time being physically active -- if they're at school at all. (Overweight or obese children are 59 percent more likely to miss more than two weeks of school than kids who are not overweight, a study shows.) And since school with low test scores are penalized (thanks in large part to No Child Left Behind), the kids who are most at risk for obesity are even less likely to get the activity they desperately need.

As I've mentioned before, the people who are least likely to need intervention are often the ones who are most likely to pay attention to educational campaigns, so more information alone isn't going to do the trick, (even if it is backed by the White House). But when social inequities are part of the equation, the problem becomes much more difficult to solve. Having to work to put food on the table trumps the hallowed family dinner hour, and if the only stores you have access to don't carry fresh produce -- or if it's prohibitively expensive -- you can't tout "eat leafy greens" as the solution.

"Property taxes, income taxes, sales taxes, not to mention the indirect product costs of regulations and taxes imposed on the food producers have driven the cost of food and the cost of living sky high," says Connie Kennedy, an educator in Alabama who blogs at The Business of Family. "These are social issues, and have nothing to do with whether the kids are begging for blue juice."

Parents, click through for more studies on the issue, and then tell me, what do you think? Is childhood obesity simply a parenting problem, or a social justice issue as well?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.

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18 comments so far...
  1. This is so true. Having experienced difficult times financially we chose to spend $5.00 on 4 loaves of white bread vrs. $4.00 on one loaf of whole grain bread just so that we could fill the bellies of our kids. We have been fortunate to have a supply of vitamins but it is no supplement for real food.

    Posted by Lisa July 26, 10 04:27 PM
  1. I believe it's a poverty issue. 12 packs of ramen noodles are 1.98 at walmart. Most childrens sports programs have hefty user fees. Makes me think my kids would be fat too if I couldn't afford whole grains and fresh produce at the farmers market and if I couldn't afford to enroll them in sports or have time to spend with them outdoors just running around.
    What if I lived in a high crime neighborhood? I would want to keep my kids safe in the house. It's sad. I don't know what can be done.

    Posted by nancy July 26, 10 07:38 PM
  1. Having been through very tough financial times, with children, I honestly do relate to the theory that it is financially difficult to eat truly healthy foods on a very limited budget. But despite several years of tough times, our children are not obese, not overweight -- nowhere near. We did not eat the freshest veggies (we sometimes had to do canned veggies, and often frozen, but rarely fresh). And we had pasta way more than we should have. Like the previous poster, we had white or wheat bread more than whole grain.

    There is a way not to get fat while still being cheap, and it isn't rocket science. It requires some knowledge about calories/fat content/exercise. It requires a bit of energy on the part of the parents. It requires some healthy attitudes about food. It's the last that is the problem, more than economics.

    Posted by jlen July 26, 10 08:09 PM
  1. I do believe it's a combination of both points raised by Lisa and nancy - it's a combination of the most nutritious foods being cost prohibitive for families on tight budgets AND a sedentary lifestyle as a result of being kept indoors for safety reasons. At least, in lower income areas.

    But there is a measure of parental responsibility that's involved in childhood obesity. My ex-husband's step sister allowed her very overweight daughter to pack her own meals for school (at age 7), and didn't stop her from putting half a bag of Doritos, a sack of Cheetoh's, and soda in her lunch bag. Daily. And THAT was when my former neice claimed she was dieting. My ex-SIL wasn't overweight by any means, nor was anyone else on that side of the family. The child's obesity was a direct result of lack of parental involvement and not caring what her daughter ate or that she never got out to run and play.

    But truly, the target demographic in these anti-obesity campaigns are sadly the people who can least afford the time or money to get to a farmer's market - and who live in areas that I wouldn't allow my kid outside to play in either. Day or night.

    Posted by Phe July 27, 10 08:07 AM
  1. Hold on a second - I know many, many overweight kids who come from families where the parents are well educated and earning an income that is at least comfortable if not affluent, who live in nice, suburban towns full of sidewalks and parks and playing fields, a choice of quality grocery stores, farmers' markets and even working farms. Many of these kids are quite athletic, playing calorie-torching sports or activities such as dance, gymnastics, swimming, soccer and hockey almost year-round, and have pys ed every day. And yet, they are huge. I'm talking about boys topping the 100-lb mark in 4th grade (or earlier). Girls hitting puberty at age 9. Pre-schoolers who weigh 50+ lbs. You can't blame that on poverty.

    When I was growing up (I'm in my 30s) I remember there would be one or two overweight kids in any given class of 20-30. Now it seems that at least 1/3 of the kids are heavy, even out here in suburbia, where it seems as if every parent uses a gym membership, a bike, and a pair of running shoes. So what is it that's making our kids fat? Or why are my kids all very thin while my husband and I are not? I have noticed that my friends who have heavy kids serve large portions, maybe getting 2 servings out of a box of mac and cheese when I would get 5, or serving full 1/4-lb burgers to pre-schoolers instead of realizing that 1/4 lb of beef is an adult portion. I see a lot of kids drinking huge amounts juice or iced tea, full of sugar and empty calories. Sugary peanut-butter with sugary jelly on white bread. BIG bowls of cereal - it doesn't have to be neon-colored to be a sugar bomb. And of course, we have school lunches. The cafeteria director at our elementary school was all up in arms in the spring that they would have to switch to whole wheat bread and brown rice. "The kids won't eat it," she worried. Yes, they will - if that's all you have and their friends are eating the same thing, they will. Why are schools still serving white bread in this day and age?

    I'm glad that this is getting the attention it deserves - an education campaign isn't going to solve the legitimate issues of people who don't have affordable access to healthy food and safe physical activity, but that population isn't the only one that's fat. Overhauling school lunches and arming pediatricians and school nurses with the tools to have productive conversations with parents of overweight kids is a start. And how about we take a portion of the ridiculous government subsidies that have been sustaining the bloated corn, beef and dairy industries and re-channel those towards local farms that produce fruits and vegetables? Crap food is cheap because our taxes pay for it.

    Posted by Jen July 27, 10 11:28 AM
  1. Sure, a lot of it is because many people grew up taking food for granted, not considering it something that has to be thought out in terms of health as well as staying on budget. Eating healthy is still often thought of as a luxury for fancy people who have the time to work it out - confusing, time-consuming, and expensive. It's also VERY hard to find a way to communicate better food options to heads of households, because it's tantamount to questioning their parenting, and that's playing with fire.

    But at least Michelle Obama agrees that poorer neighborhoods tend to be "food deserts" dominated by fast-food franchises, where there's nary an affordable grocer in sight. Here's a video where she explains the phenomenon:

    Posted by Columbine July 27, 10 12:02 PM
  1. It's not just in high crime neighborhoods that kids are being kept indoors. I live in a very safe town in NH where kids are routinely dropped off and picked up from school or accompanied to the bus stop by parents. There might be an annual "ride to school day" or a weekly "walking school bus" when the weather is good but it is rare to see unchaperoned children on the playground or ballfield after school (in fact, children aren't allowed to stay after school just to play). When I was a kid, it was "I'm going out to play" followed by "OK, be home by 6 for dinner" and that was it. Now, a parent that doesn't know precisely where their kids are at every moment is taken to task by the mommy police (or even the real police in the example of the kid who wanted to walk to his soccer practice). With the exception of those living in high crime areas, I believe it is media induced paranoia enforced by the mommy police that keep kids sedentary.

    Posted by Cordelia July 27, 10 12:03 PM
  1. When I was young, my folks didn't have much money either. However, my mother focused on nutritious meals that didn't cost much at all. We grew our own veggies too. We didn't have money for sugary stuff, but my parents fed me vegetables before letting me discover fruits or sweet items. Parents are lazy. The school system is lazy. They're over protecting kids by not allowing them to run around. People put their kids on drugs because their kid wants to play and run (like kids tend to do). No wonder they're stupid, fat and addicted.

    Posted by Joe July 27, 10 02:39 PM
  1. While I certainly think there are families who face obesity because of the poverty issues you mentioned, I'd hazard to guess that is a very small portion of the obese population and I think it is a mistake to focus too much on that. If the people who could afford to make the correct choices did, there would be a lot more funding to help those who can't. Somehow virtually every kid in my kids' middle school (an urban school with a high poverty rate) has a TV, cable, cell phone, video game systems.

    There is a huge parental responsibility of ensuring kids are healthy that is being abdicated, let's stop making excuses and convince parents to be accountable.


    Posted by Jayne July 27, 10 02:49 PM
  1. Like most problems, there is the morally arrogant, judgmental answer (almost always at least partly wrong), and the complex, hard to think about, so let's not, right answer.

    You have hit upon the complexity and unfairess of the obesity epidemic.
    Cheap and easy = fat. Unfortunately this problem is so easily boxed up as a moral shortcoming, I can't imagine this country having the wisdom and righteousness to fix it.

    Posted by ralston1 July 28, 10 06:11 AM
  1. There are many cases of obesity, poor diet is chief among them. With HGCS (high glucose corn syrup) and other manufactured non-nutritive additives pervasive in the average American's diet, children are being programed to eat and eat more. The food is cheap to make and the chemicals encourage overeating.

    It we stepped back and pulled this junk off the shelves, many children would start acting like children and you'd see a lot less behavior and health issues.

    Posted by Maye July 28, 10 06:36 AM
  1. I wholeheartedly agree that a media induced paranoia has robbed our kids of quality, extended outdoor time. Children are actually LESS likely to be abducted today than in years previous, but "back in the day" we didn't have CNN, CNBC, Nancy Grace and of course the internet to take a single case of abduction and spin it into oblivion. I even know better, and still can't help but keep my kids close to the vest. Add a lack of recess in k-5, and very little phys ed in 6-12, and where are kids going to exercise? Wealthier schools and towns offer sports clubs and teams, but even in low income areas, if teams are available, one needs the funds to pay for it. Also, the sheer variety of video activities today keep kids sitting. I mean, how long could you play Atari? It was fun, but it went nowhere, so eventually you headed outside.

    Having worked in childhood obesity prevention, it is my experience that education programs don't work at all. Most people do know what is and isn't healthy, but cultural, economic, and even social norms tug against good sense. "I WANT IT" is the primary driver, and the consequences are pushed back in our minds. So what if I'm fat? I can buy bigger clothes, bigger chairs, drive everywhere, blah blah blah. Couple that with the availability of food in general (could you get pizza at KMART when you were a kid?) and the over consumption of just about everything in this country, and it's a recipe for disaster. Moderation is no longer needed, willpower is a joke, and gluttony is celebrated. No amount of education can undo it now. Unfortunately, the only solution that will work is nudging ( a theory posited by folks I can't recall). That is, forcing people to make good decisions. But will it ever happen? Doubt it. We're much to wedded to our over consumption and "rights" to allow the govt. to make any serious headway on this problem. It's too bad. My kids will be fine because I "nudge" them (I make them exercise, I choose the foods they eat, etc) and hopefully through enough of this a healthy lifestyle will be their choice as they get older.

    Finally, our society doesn't make healthy lifestyle a priority. Gyms are everywhere, running is trendy, and exercise clothes have their own stores, but when can people actually exercise? YOU try getting to the gym or out for a run with working, taking care of kids and a house and a yard and family and cooking and cleaning,,,,,if most people with kids are like me, once they get to bed and I have time to get out, it's 9 pm and they're bone tired. I make myself go, but i hate every second of it. Come the weekend, I want to relax and hang with my friends and family, not worry about fitting in my 2 hours of exercise. Where's the enforced 40 hour work week so parents have time after work to do anything? Where's the subsidized childcare so at home parents can take 30 minutes to exercise? Until our society makes healthy living a real (and not commercially cute) priority, it isn't going to happen.

    Posted by Jhana July 28, 10 02:25 PM
  1. Childhood obesity is an issue that affects children from all different backgrounds. We need to join together, not find fault or blame with various areas. Yes schools can help through better lunches, and phys ed programs, recess & more. Nachos for lunch is not a healthy choice. Parents can work with the schools. Some do at recess time, perhaps do 'moving schoolbuses.' We can try to have areas in the neighborhood designated as safe to play, encouraging kindness, & 'antibullying.' I am sure if people put their heads together in a positive manner, there are many great, cooperative ideas that could come about. Perhaps, this is the next book/program Dr. Beth Defrino, who has worked with children in the O.W.L program, could work on & fast, as this is a topic that needs to be addressed quickly for children today.

    Posted by CHD July 28, 10 06:42 PM
  1. Nothing food is off limits to my son... though as to exact diet at his school I am not sure. (some of you have chided me in the past for sending my 7 year old to boarding school, but I have my reasons).

    However, he seldom spends time "chilling" as people call it. Between his equestrian activities and lengthy country walks - it's not that he cannot eat potato crisps - it is that he is simply too active to think about it.

    I believe the route cause of this problem is that children look at food as a form of enterntainment.

    Posted by Dan Cleo July 29, 10 12:54 PM
  1. What if it is a natural issue? Both of my kids are over the 90th percentile for their height and weight - and have been so since they were infants. My son, one of the youngest in his class, is also one of the tallest. People mistake my three year old for kindergarten student.

    They are active. Karate, golf, dance, swimming, general play. When we play with our Wii, there is as much bowling, hula hooping, and running as there is Mario Kart. Healthy eating is a constant topic of conversation and treats are just that -- TREATS -- once a while, in moderation. They do not drink soda. Juice is limited and watered down. A spoonful of ovaltine makes chocolate milk once in a while. Her meals are accompanied by fruits, his are by vegetables based on their preferences.

    They are big, heavy kids. I didn't say fat. They have slim faces and strong muscles. Broad shoulders and athletic shins and thighs. Their shoe sizes are several beyond their same-age peers. Yet they are borderline obese. They're built differently. My kids have a niece who is six feet tall, very athletic, but certainly not like a supermodel. It's in their genes. Short of starving them and starting to make them take up running for exercise, I'm not sure there is much I can do about it. And it's none of anyone's business.

    And now, because of discussions like these, how hard am I going to have to work to make sure they retain positive body images?

    Posted by RH August 3, 10 11:42 AM
  1. This really is a sad issue with seemingly not a good answer. ugh, what would any well-intending parent do when they struggle just to put any food in front of their children? I am glad to see though that more programs are being set up to help those who couldn't otherwise afford healthy whole foods. I know how awesome it is for us when our kids choose whole foods and eat salads from our garden and whole grains like Kamut and quinoa etc. They love them! It is hard to justify the cost some weeks when money is tight but we try to pinch where we can to make it happen. This can't work for everyone I know, which makes it awful for so many families.

    Posted by smilinggreenmom August 3, 10 04:23 PM
  1. Whoops, I meant to say my kids have an auntie (not a niece) who is over six feet.

    Posted by RH August 3, 10 06:45 PM
  1. I don't think its just a parenting issue I think it is our society as a whole. I think portion control and the convenience of prepared or processed foods are huge problems. I think easy wins over healthy too many times. Life has become more and more hectic and people have less time to cook. I do also agree that organic or healthier choices are more expensive but we vote with our purchases and the tides are turning I have seen more and more organic or healthier choices in every supermarket.

    Posted by ccmom2 August 20, 10 08:26 AM
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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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