Why the Rise in Childhood Obesity? Too Much Food, Too Little Exercise or Something Else?

31 Jan

Seeing the new documentary Fed Up at the Sundance Film Festival last week inflamed an already nagging disbelief that this generation of children face a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to the rise in obesity. At the same time, it provided a sense of hope that the film may follow in the footsteps of producer Laurie David‘s 2006 Sundance hit An Inconvenient Truth which brought the issue of global warming to the forefront and galvanized a call-to-action that established it as not just a political challenge but a moral imperative. 

Laurie David along with director Stephanie Soechtig and narrator/executive producer Katie Couric illuminate the growing financial burden of childhood obesity on our healthcare system and also the personal human toll as seen through the eyes of the children who live it.

MaggieThey address the common, judgmental misconception that being overweight is a result of poor decision-making which essentially leaves it up to the eater to make the nutritional and activity corrections that will wind down the numbers on the scale. But to Dr. Yoni Friedhoff, an obesity expert who writes in his blog Weighty Matters and elsewhere about health and weight loss, it’s more than that:

Kids today haven’t suffered an epidemic loss of willpower. They’re not sloths. They’re not gluttons. They’re not lazy. They’re just normal kids living in a world where there’s a torrential current of calories pointed at them; where we’ve normalized the use of sugar and junk food to mark every single life event, no matter how small; where governments are complicit in consumers being duped by lax front-of-package labeling laws that allow cereals like Froot Loops to boast about its nutritional benefits; where schools serve no-name junk food and teach kids that if a chip is baked, it’s suddenly good for them; where young parents may be two generations away from regular home cooking and nightly family dinners; and where what were once portions designed for fully grown adults are now featured on kids’ menus.  

So Who Is To Blame?

The kids the film follows as they struggle to shed pounds all really want to make the changes that will help them to succeed. They follow the prevailing advice to eat less and exercise more. But it becomes obvious how easy it is to be swayed by a food industry that, in doing business, promotes products with enticing health claims that neatly fit the current diet fads.

The food industry has worked systematically to force higher-profit, processed food into every aspect of our lives.  Source

For these kids, with little (or more) to show for their efforts, hopelessness sets in.

 Nutritional Confusion

And surprisingly it’s not only the manufacturers who push these foods as I share in this post about Anthem Blue Cross offering coupons for low-fat ice cream treats that are full of sugar alcohols, artificial flavors and dyes and partially hydrogenated soybean oil.

Blue Bunny Sweet Freedom Banana Split Ice Cream They call these confections a “solution to good health.”

How Did It Get To This?

We used to have to worry about taking candy from babies; now we are marketing it to them. Source

The simple answer, according to Fed Up, is the pervasiveness of sugar in heavily marketed processed foods, not just in sweets but tomato sauces, cereals, crackers, prepared meals…the list goes on. As the fats were removed or reduced in adherence to the 1977 McGovern Report, the first U.S. dietary guidelines, food manufacturers began to create products that aligned with a fat-is-bad mindset.


And to make these fatless creations more tasty, sugar in one of its many disguised forms, was added.

How Much Sugar is OK? 

Of the 600,000 food items in the American grocery store, 80% are spiked with added sugar. Source

The reality is sugar increases insulin and insulin increases fat storage. And it’s addictive. But have you ever noticed how nutrition labels list the percentage of daily allowance for all ingredients but sugar? Even if you’re attempting to follow the all-in-moderation philosophy, how do you know how much is in there if you haven’t made it yourself? What if food labels showed that a product contained 150% of your daily allowance? Might not sell too well.

What Can Be Done?

The film does not lay out all of the answers. As Couric says, “We don’t know what every solution is. But we wanted to expose the truth and then bring everyone together to come up with solutions.”

From The Real Deal perspective, change must incorporate many elements:

Eat Real Food

  • Get back to a culture of home cooking where the sugar, fat and salt can be controlled.
  • Establish more programs like Cooking Matters that teach participants on a budget to shop smarter, use nutrition information to make healthier choices and cook delicious, affordable meals.
  • Change the mindset that cooking takes too much money, time and skill.
  • Resurrect home economics classes.
  • Seek nutrient dense foods that have more value in sustaining energy.

Read Labels

  • Learn how to understand food labelsBe aware that sugar comes under various guises and unrecognizable ingredients should be avoided.

Get Junk Food Out of Schools and Bring Food Education In

  • Incorporate food education in schools. See toolkits from Jamie Oliver and The Lunch Box and classroom lessons from Food Day.
  • Use school gardens and kitchens as a learning lab.
  • Remove all fast food and soda machines.

Food Corporations

Political Policies

  • Rally our leaders to address junk food marketing.

Improve Awareness

  • Screen Fed Up in schools across America.
  • Develop and support grass-roots efforts that empower kids to become their own advocates as programs like Cool the Earth have done for climate change.

Fed Up was acquired at Sundance by RADiUS-TWC and hopefully can be seen soon at a theater near you.  

6 Responses to “Why the Rise in Childhood Obesity? Too Much Food, Too Little Exercise or Something Else?”

  1. elizabeth taliaferro February 1, 2014 at 2:01 am #

    excellent post.

  2. Beth Gonzales February 1, 2014 at 5:00 pm #

    Great post!! Thank you!!

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. caseyhinds February 6, 2014 at 9:38 pm #

    Thanks for writing this and I look forward to watching the “Fed Up” movie. I hope it will get more parents to call for an end to schools being used to market junk food to kids: http://kyhealthykids.com/2014/01/17/will-the-pta-champion-ending-junk-food-marketing-in-schools/

  4. austinkiessig February 7, 2014 at 5:49 am #

    Very good writeup. I agree with you on all points.

    • lbattelle February 7, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

      Glad to discover your great content and writing. Thanks.

  5. alicemsharp June 4, 2014 at 3:44 am #

    Your Fed Up review is so SPOT ON after having just seen the movie. Reading the information again gets my blood boiling at the irresponsibility of the government and food companies. Especially the fact that sugar is not required to report a daily % allowance. Gross negligence. I love the analogy to the cigarette companies in the movie, and hopefully this change will occur with the food companies. They need to be forced to make responsible products that still work with their bottom line financial goals. The fact that Anthem Blue Cross was giving out coupons for Fat Free Ice Cream as a healthy alternative is a joke.

    I want to say to every parent out there: Would you give your 10 year old a cigarette to smoke? If no, then they should not be eating processed food.

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