Monday, February 15, 2010

Childhood obesity is caused by parental obesity and/or apathy

A short article I wrote for MercatorNet.

Here is an uncut, politically-incorrect version:

President Obama may be wishing he had never started the tortuous debate on health care reform, but his wife seems to have hit on a winning issue with her Let’s Move! program to combat childhood obesity. After all, who could oppose an initiative to address one of the most distressing health issues of the times?

Obesity is constantly in the news: you can’t watch TV or read a paper, magazine or website without seeing an obesity-related headline, human interest story, or those ubiquitous ads for diet tips. Moreover, what has long been a Western phenomenon is rapidly going global. A recent cover story for Readers’ Digest (Canadian edition) declares, on the authority of the World Health Organization, that the world has reached a disturbing “tipping point”: for the first time in history, more people on this planet are dying from overeating than of starvation.
 The issue of childhood obesity brings a heightened sense of alarm to parent and non-parent alike. Society—righty—shares a collective sense of urgency and protectiveness towards its young—except, for some odd reason, in the pre-birth stage of life, but that is a conundrum for another day. The fact is that our children are getting fatter, and numerous studies  have set out to discover why, and what can be done about it.

On Tuesday, February 9, 2010, President Obama signed an executive memorandum setting up a task force on obesity headed by the First Lady. From a Yahoo news release:

“The childhood obesity rate tripled in the United States between 1980-1999, creating an epidemic blamed on lack of exercise, a poor diet that's heavy on fat and sugar and not enough fresh fruits and vegetables.”

In most developed nations, the situation is no different, as studies from the UK and Canada reveal.

The causes of childhood obesity may be multi-faceted, but experts tend to ignore the most blatantly obvious: children are overweight because the adults who care for them are themselves overweight and/or unmotivated to make changes. There is a dual moral/parenting dimension to this issue that is virtually ignored in the media.

Consider, for example, those present at the White House press conference last Tuesday (or at least whom the media deigned to name): “First Lady Michelle Obama teamed up with athletes, farmers, doctors and the media Tuesday to confront the childhood obesity 'epidemic' that affects a staggering one in three American youngsters.”

Odd that no parents, teachers or daycare workers were represented (were any invited?): those are the three groups with whom children spend most of their waking hours. Or perhaps it’s not so unusual, as it is human nature (never mind the nature of government bureaucrats and other great minds) to overlook the obvious. Instead, here are some of the findings and suggestions laid out in the online article:

“Last year, at the first-ever major meeting on obesity in the United States, childhood obesity was described as the country's worst health crisis, and parents were urged to ban television in kids' rooms as a first step to making sure children got out and exercised.”

“Lawmakers have been encouraged to slap a tax on sugary drinks to combat obesity, and several schools have banned junk food from vending machines and even chocolate milk from the canteen in an effort to fight the fat.”
So because the podgy couple down the street won’t look after their own child’s health (it goes much farther than “banning television”), the entire nation is going to be punished for enjoying its favourite cola of a Saturday evening? How un-American is that? It is laudable that the U.S. administration cares about children’s health and is willing to do something about it, but it is questionable whether more taxes, laws and government bureaucracy represent the best solution.

In the long run, a nation is weakened when its citizens blame “society” or industry—Big Tobacco, Big Oil, or in this case, Big Mac—for their problems, and demand that “the government” fix them. There is an elephant in the room (quite often, it is parked on the couch, consuming potato chips and soda) but we strain to see around it, hoping to blame peripheral things like video games or vending machines in schools. Physically fit, healthy, active, and involved parents do not generally raise passive, morbidly obese children.

Bureaucrats and strategists insist upon the need for parental education, fifty-plus years after the school system introduced health class, the national food guide and began showing films about the merits of good nutrition and fitness. In the 70s and 80s (when I was schooled) we still discussed these topics, though the curriculum had changed slightly: fewer instructional films with that authoritarian male voice-over imparting hard facts, more rap-sessions-in-a-circle where you shared your feelings about ‘wellbeing’. In the 90s and beyond, health education advanced ever further, deep into social engineering. Oh, for the days when health class used bananas as an example of how to incorporate fruit into your diet, and not for demonstrating how to put on a condom.

By all means, teachers should continue to discuss nutrition and fitness in grade school. But it is difficult to believe that –in this über-educated, media-saturated continent— parents simply don’t know that it is unhealthy to feed their children McDonald's burgers or frozen pizza every day, or that it is unwise never to serve fresh produce in their homes. If you own a TV and have seen even one episode of "The Biggest Loser," you have heard Bob talk about vegetables.

Nor can anyone plead economics and protest the cost of fresh food. (In Canada, apples and oranges average about $1.00 per pound; chocolate and potato chips, close to $10.00/lb.) Fresh food is, moreover, much cheaper than luxuries such as alcohol, cigarettes, gambling or cable TV. It seems a matter of priority. Now some will become angry at me for presuming to judge other people's choices, but when the government wants to me to pay for the results of those choices, it becomes my concern. (The same delusion exists in Canada that The Government can solve people's health and personal problems, and we are taxed accordingly.)

Mrs. Obama is perfectly correct that we should encourage our children to be active, and that fitness initiatives should be available to all children. But again, it needn't be complex or expensive. Instead of complaining that there are not enough government-funded "programs" where parents can drop off their children, moms and dads might try taking Junior for a walk, or getting together with another family for an activity. On a more basic level, exercises like sit-ups, push-ups and jumping jacks cost nothing and can be done in one’s living room.

On the question of affordability, it remains a mystery how so many parents can find the means for electronics and video games, but not for exercise equipment. A great many children today own cell phones and iPods; how many have skipping ropes? When it comes to the video games in the average family’s collection, what is the ratio of violent games to those promoting fitness?

The issue is also spiritual and/or psychological: after decades of “self-esteem” education, adults and children are still eating themselves to death because at some level, they feel badly about themselves: why? Mrs. Obama hopes to wipe out childhood obesity in one generation. Good luck with that, Mrs. President. She may need to involve the CIA and perhaps name her new government program Extreme Mind-Power Makeover, Enhanced Self-esteem Edition.

After decades of heeding the mantra “If it feels good, do it,” we have thousands, perhaps millions of overweight people who do not feel good at all, either in body or mind. It's interesting how the sports retailer Nike adopted the motto, but removed the "feeling good" part. Their modified slogan is "Just Do It," and, alas, they are correct. No matter how difficult it is, parents just have to step up and get the job done. Paradoxically, what many of us find (and by us, I mean we who have lost weight successfully, and helped our children to do so) is that being healthier does feel very good indeed.

Ultimately, the efficacy of government intervention is questionable because success requires the cooperation and participation of the target group. You cannot force (or even educate) people into desiring good health for themselves and their children. The issue of combating obesity is not new: government programs have been battling it for decades, only to see the problem worsen. Dr. Mark Tremblay, who participated in a recent Canadian study on obesity: says, “The facilities and programs are there, we’ve provided it, we’ve built it and they still don’t come. A large percentage of the population is just not buying into it.”

Many are buying it (initially), if sales of diet books, programs and exercise equipment are any indication, but persevering at permanent lifestyle change is the crux. Fighting obesity requires more than good intentions: it necessitates discipline, self-control, and hard work. The government cannot bequeath any of this: adults must acquire these attitudes and skills, and model them for their children. We do not necessarily need a multi-million (billion, trillion?) dollar government program to improve the wellbeing of the nation’s children. Parents must get off the couch, and take responsibility for their children’s health. We don’t need Big Brother so much as we need Mom and Dad.

Update: one commentor on Mercator Net suggested that my argument is 'naive.' But you won't fix childhood obesity (or any other number of societal ills) until you fix the family. "The Village" (ie. government, the media, educational, medical, legal systems) has been usurping and weakening the family for decades. The notion that these institutions (with gobs of taxpayer funding) will somehow be able to remedy the situation (any situation) is beyond naive; it's delusional. 

And on a related note, this is just bogus:

"Rising child obesity rates in developed countries are putting increasing pressure on food advertisers not to market unhealthy foods to children."

Who even knew there was a "Responsible Children's Marketing Initiative"?

Ahem: chicken nuggets don't cause obesity--overeating does. What about self-control? Or responsible parenting?
It is beyond me that people expect industry and advertisers to have a greater moral obligation vis a vis children's health than the kids' own parents.

1 comment:

  1. EXCELLENT, Mrs. P. This reminds me of a book I believe you would like, "Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes" by Mary Eberstadt.