Obesity: Crisis for developed countries

In the United States obesity in children of all races has increased two to three times over the past 25 years. In England, the rates for the same period are over two times.

Obesity in children has the same result as with adults, that is, hypertension, dyslipideaemia, chronic inflammation, increased tendency for blood clotting and related problems. Obesity in children results in a clustering of cardiovascular disease risk factors, known as the insulin-resistance syndrome, in children as young as five years of age. Obesity puts extreme pressure on the child’s and adolescent’s heart. Pulmonary complications, including sleep-disorders, breathing problems and asthma, can develop.

Obesity has extensive psycho-social consequences. Obese kids are routinely stereotyped as unhealthy, academically unsuccessful, socially inept, lazy and unhygienic. Pediatricians have documented negative self-image concepts starting as early as five. Sadness, loneliness, nervousness, and high-risk activities are quite commonly described.

As readers can imagine there is no simple answer to this major problem. Scientific research supports the obvious – more exercise and better diet are good beginnings.

Two researchers found, “ it is hard to envision an environment more effective than ours [in the USA] for producing … obesity.” For example, in the 1970s, children ate 17 percent of their meals away from home. By the mid-1990s that figure was almost doubled to 30 percent. Food consumption increased fivefold. Soft drink production almost tripled for girls and boys in the same time period.

There are 170,000 fast food restaurants in the U.S. alone. Advertising and marketing expenditures by the food industry are over $12.7 billion. Marketing campaigns are directed toward young kids.

By contrast, the budget of U.S. National Cancer Institute’s good food program was $1.1 million in 1999.

The British journal, Lancet, identified what they call a common sense approach to the prevention and treatment of childhood obesity. These include healthy meals at home and at school. Eliminate unhealthy foods from vending machines. Protect open spaces for exercise activities.

Schools are extremely important. Teachers and counselors need to make sure that obese students are not isolated and made fun of. Intervention programs by schools are crucial.

But, they also recognize that public policy needs changing: tax fast food and soft drinks; subsidize nutritious foods, e.g., vegetables and fruits; prohibit fast food advertising around schools. And, finally, they hit upon a major cause of the whole problem, i.e., agribusiness and their massive financial contributions to political campaigns.

They call for regulations of political contributions by these purveyors of bad and dangerous foods.

Recently, some class-action suits by obese older people who are suffering from heart and pulmonary problems, copying the tobacco suits, are getting some national attention. Let’s hope these solutions can stem the tide of children’s obesity.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org