Why Our Kids are So Fat – How to Reverse This Dangerous Trend

There’s no denying it; our nation’s kids are getting fat. Maybe “getting” is just plain charitable. According to the U.S. CDC, more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese. From those statistics, there is little doubt where the kids are looking for inspiration. Is that a trend, or have those figures remained static for some time?

Trend is too tame a word for what’s happening to the nation’s waistlines; tsunami is more like it. In 1992, a mere 20 years ago, only 5 states,Michigan, Kentucky, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Mississippi, had obesity rates in the 15% – 19% range. All the other states were lower.

Fast forward a mere 18 years, to 2010. Now any state would love to fall into the 15% – 19% range, but unfortunately, not a single one can make that claim! All states now have a minimum obesity rate of 20 – 24%, and they are in the minority, with most landing in even higher ranges.Are children following a similar path to obesity as the nation’s adult population?

What’s Happened to Our Waistlines?

It’s sad really, in a day and age with such free and easy access to information, that so many parents seem unable to find the key to keeping junior fit and trim. Is it because they are less than physically fit themselves, or are there other forces at work here?

The example that the”Rotund 37″ set for their kids is certainly one aspect. After all, children tend to follow their parent’s example on many other behaviors as well. In addition, if the parents are overweight their nutritional knowledge, in addition to their willpower, is probably lacking.

Here is another correlation; you can take it for what it is worth. The states with the highest obesity rates, are overwhelmingly the states with the lowest high school graduation rates. This lends credence to the theory that nutritional ignorance contributes to obesity.

[box type=”note”]Not only is knowledge a powerful thing, lack of it can be powerful as well. For example, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama are all in the bottom 10 for high school graduation rates. They also fall into the highest obesity range the DCD lists, over 30%.[/box]

There are 12 states in the highest CDC obesity range. Eight of them also have the dubious distinction to occupy a spot in the bottom 10 high school graduation rate. Two others, South Carolina and Oklahoma, barely missed making the bottom 10 cut, placing 39th and 36th , respectively.

The CDC discovered that there is a definite obesity- higher education relationship among women. On average, women with college degrees have lower obesity rates than those without. Interestingly, with men there was no such correlation.

Are Kids Just Following Their Parent’s Examples?

Children are certainly becoming more adipose.  Obesity among US children 6 to 11 years of age has keeps rising. The childhood obesity rate tripled from 6.5% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services research points to several reasons for the childhood obesity increase.

Inactivity – Unlike years gone by, children now prefer to exercise their fingers and thumbs playing virtual sports, rather than participating in actual athletic competition. Has our national preoccupation with politically correct, non-competitive sports had an impact here?

Who can tell for sure? However, seeing your intense effort being rewarded in a similar fashion to another who merely participated  in the same event does not teach children that effort leads to reward, no matter the effects on little Johnny’s self-esteem and well-being.

The National Sporting Goods Association reports that from 2001 to 2011, childhood participation in organized sporting activities saw an overall decline. Those participating in baseball, basketball and volleyball  dropped 17.3, 7.1%, and 16.2% respectively. Soccer saw a modest increase (0.4%), while football and tennis both grew significantly (4.7% and 20.1%).

Overall, the number of young people participating in these six sports went from 88.4 million to 84.5 million, a 4.7% decrease. Are kids these days simply eschewing real sports for virtual ones? Would they rather play NBA 2012 than dribble a real ball on a real court?

How have video games fared during the same time period? According to  the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), between 1999 and 2008, video game sales increased 300%. Although teens and younger age groups do not comprise the largest percentage of game players, they are still strongly represented. However, in case you’re wondering, the average gamer is 35 years old, so it isn’t just the younger generation who is growing larger while playing more virtual sports.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Has the increase in video gaming contributed to the sports participation decline? Possibly, but there is far more than video gaming and decreasing sports participation to blame for an increasingly obese youngster population. Garbage in, garbage out comes to mind here.

One viewing of Morgan Spurlock’s ode to fast food, Supersize Me, and you’ll come to the conclusion that most things you can order by yelling into a speaker at someone who you can’t understand very well are not the healthiest of fare. Are we eating more of that griddle borne poison?

Michael Freeman, author of the book Pediatric Obesity, reports that fast food sales increased 900% in the 30 years from 1975 – 2005. In addition researchers have discovered that living near a source of junk or fast food has a direct correlation with a child’s likelihood of becoming obese. The Nation Institute of Health found that kids who live nearer than a block to a convenience store had a higher BMI than those who did not.

A study from Columbia University and the University of California revealed that kids who attended a school nearer than 525 feet from a fast food restaurant were 5.2% more likely to be obese than those who weren’t fortunate enough to have a ready source of fast food across the street or around the corner.

A diet full of such food is an easy trap for a time crunched parent to fall into, however. Couple that to some masterful marketing by the fast food industry, and it is so easy to just swing through the drive through to satiate little Johnny, rather than to endure the screaming that ensues as the Golden Arches recede into the distance.

Easy as it may be, it is doing our children a disservice, and I have been as guilty as the next parent. Going through the drive through adjacent to the local high school on the way home from football and basketball practice has become a nightly ritual. Practice gets out late, home is still 15 minutes away, and doing the dishes at 9pm on a work/school night is a job no one wants. You probably know the story.

There may, in fact be no direct causal relationship between them, but an increase in fast food dining, more video game play, lower education level among parents, and decreasing participation in youth sports have all paralleled the rise in childhood obesity levels. I’m not a prestigious research institution, so I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on the issue.

What can we do to help our kids, and in 20 years, ourselves, not sport an extra 20, 30, or even 50 lbs around our midsections? The easiest solution is to reverse the trends that have led to our current position.

Eat More Nutritious Diets

Get educated about nutrition, In this era, there is simply no excuse for not having at least a modicum of nutritional savvy. There is this thing called the Internet….. Plan meals to include solid nutritional choices, rather than foods rich in white flour, refined sugar, and saturated fats. If kids get in the habit of eating nutritious foods at home, they’ll be more likely o eat them on the road, as well, not to mention the health benefits from healthy home meals.

Substitute low glycemic index (foods that convert to sugar more slowly in the bloodstream) fruits for candy and other sugary snacks. Note; most breakfast cereals are loaded with refined sugar, so avoid them like the plague.

Bring nutritious foods to practices, events and activities, so the kids have a ready source of nutritious food, rather than going through the drive through on the way to or from them, or hitting the concession stand for candy and hot dogs. Almonds, apples, and peanuts are great choices here.

Also, keep portion sizes lower, so there is at least some semblance of sanity to them. I’m sorry, but a 24 oz drink is not a small. There is no reason for kids to eat large or mondo/extra-large. Your heart may enjoy a triple cheeseburger, but that feeling is only temporary, before the struggle to beat sets in. Try the grilled chicken sandwich with tomato and lettuce instead.

[box type=”note”]NOTE: While I do not endorse a fast food based diet, the notion that it is the restaurant’s fault you are fat is plain ludicrous. They offered the food, you choose to eat it, and in amounts that would give an elephant pause. I worked at a hotel restaurant in college. It had a large brunch on Sundays. One weekend the hotel hosted an Over-eaters Anonymous convention. I’ll never forget watching in amazement as a woman chastised a buss boy for not having sweet and low on the table, as she set down two heaping plates of food. News flash, the 16 calories in that sugar packet are not the problem, when the rest of the meal is 3,000+.[/box]

Get Kids Involved in More Action Based Activities and a Health and Fitness Lifestyle

Music is fantastic, and I enjoy it more than most. Chess is a great game, and it’s been played by some of the most accomplished individuals throughout history. Debate is important and being a skilled debater can lead to a successful career in law or politics.

All of these activities however, while valuable to a child’s development, should not take the place of sports or action based activities. They should supplement each other. There will be plenty of time for leading a sedentary lifestyle as kids morph into cubicle-confined adults. There is no reason to get a head start on adding those excess pounds now.

If your kids are not the “jock” type, they don’t have to hang out on the field or in a gym. Biking, martial arts, hiking, skiing, and other activities are just as valuable, if they are performed at a high level. As long as they are getting regular, rigorous  physical activity that includes more than their thumbs, that will be sufficient. Make them mow the yard or stack firewood, and you’ll get a double benefit.

Get Educated About Health and Nutrition

This is a great idea for both kids and parents alike. A little knowledge here will serve kids well as they transition into adulthood.

What Does it All Mean, Anyway?

Despite the success of The Biggest Loser, there is a definite national trend toward obesity. Perhaps, as a nation, we’re living vicariously through the TV, rather than applying the lessons learned to our own lives? In any case, some common threads to childhood obesity include lower parental education levels, decreased organized sports participation, increased video game play, and an increasingly fast food based diet. We can reverse the childhood obesity rate, if only we look to the problem’s source.

[box]Bio: Steve Faber made the journey from in shape to pretty darn overweight, and back again. He reveals the kind of health and fitness information that made him successful in his weight loss quest, without turning his life upside down, spending hours in the gym, or spending a fortune on supplements and diet pills on his blog, Belly Fat Loser.[/box]

Steve Faber

Once, I was a fit and trim 192lbs @ 6'2", with under 10% body fat. Then, the pressures of running a business, and starting a family took over and before I knew it, I was 225lbs at 23% body fat. Not a pretty picture. I know, because seeing a picture of myself in that state is exactly what motivated me to dedicate myself to losing that excess fat, and restoring my health again.

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