Childhood Obesity: What Parents Can Do About This Growing Epidemic

By Larissa Phillips

Is the childhood obesity epidemic in the U.S. out of control? Can it get any worse?

When a group of New York City teens – including one allegedly weighing 400 pounds – sued McDonald’s Corp claiming the fast-food giant caused their obesity and subsequent health problems, many people raised a cynical eyebrow. This is America, after all, where lawsuits over cancer-causing cigarettes or scalding hot coffee result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in victim compensation.

Every day? Who lets their children eat fast food more than a couple of times a week, let alone every day? The answer, apparently, is many of us.

Fast Food Nation

Americans spend more than $110 billion annually on fast food. Studies show that nearly half our food dollars are spent on food eaten away from home. And, on any given day, one in four adults eats at a fast-food restaurant.

Yet fast food is only one factor in the U.S. obesity epidemic. Only 3 percent of us meet at least four of the five federal Food Guide Pyramid recommendations for daily intake of grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat. Less than a third of us accomplish the recommended 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five times a week. And 40 percent of us have no leisure-time physical activity at all.

It’s not difficult to see why so many kids are on the path to being overweight. The culture of overeating, poor food quality and sedentary lifestyles is pervasive. But what worries health professionals most are the potentially deadly effects of being overweight or obese, particularly for kids. Overweight children are at increased risk of hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, orthopedic problems, upper respiratory infections and severe asthma.

“Diagnosis of diabetes in adolescents raises the specter 10 years later of renal failure requiring dialysis, and of amputations and heart attacks – in young adults,” notes David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., head of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, which records 2,500 patient visits (for severely overweight children) per year, including 350 new patients annually.

What We're Up Against

It’s a scary scenario, and one that our society has been slow to deal with. We’re up against:

- a food industry that pockets billions of dollars from our purchases of processed, high-calorie convenience food – often in huge portion sizes.

- a fast-paced lifestyle that doesn’t honor meal time as leisure or family time; and a high-tech society in which TVs and computers entertain us, while machines increasingly do our work for us.

Until this changes, health and government officials – including the Surgeon General and the national Centers for Disease Control – are asking parents to step up their efforts to prevent obesity in children.

What You Can Do

Keeping kids healthy and fit is every parent’s responsibility. To help you better understand the seriousness of the American obesity epidemic – and to provide you with the tools necessary to combat this alarming trend – we’ve put together a series of informative articles and resources. Here, you will learn how to help your kids (and perhaps even yourself) win the battle of the bulge.