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We Must Work to Prevent Obesity in Children

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Americans are the fattest people on the planet and continue to expand.

According to a survey of adult men and women in the United States

during 1999-2000, published in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical

Association, 30.5% of Americans are obese, up from 22.9% ten years

earlier, and nearly two-thirds (64.5%) are overweight (Flegal et al.). Excess

weight isn't just a matter of looks. Obesity magnifies the risk of

heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other ailments-already

overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of chronic illness (Brownell and

Horgen 4). An especially disturbing aspect of this trend is that

children are increasingly obese. The Center for Disease Control and

Prevention reports that the percentage of obese children aged 6 to 11 almost

quadrupled from 4% in 1974 to 15% in 2000, and the percentage of obese

children aged 12 to 19 increased from 6% in 1974 to 15% in 2000 (United

States). Obese children have a 70% chance of becoming obese adults with a

much higher risk of serious illness than those of normal weight

(Brownell and Horgen 46). Furthermore, obese children suffer many serious

health problems today. Pediatricians now routinely treat atherosclerosis

and type II diabetes, diseases that used to be frequent only among older

people (Tyre 38). Today's children are among the first generation in

American history who may die at earlier ages than their parents.

For most people in the United States, obesity is a matter of individual

choice and old-fashioned will power (Lee and Oliver). The usual advice

for overweight people is to eat less and exercise more, but how

applicable is this advice for children unless they have strong guidance from

adults? How can children make intelligent choices about eating in an

environment where overeating is normal and where few adults know what's in

the food they eat? The United States has been successful in addressing

teenage health problems: drug use has dropped, teenage pregnancy has

been reduced, and teen smoking has declined. We need to take a similar

proactive response by taking concrete steps to reverse the trend toward

more obese children.

Many have blamed the rise in obesity on a more sedentary life style,

including the move to the suburbs, where people drive instead of walk,

and increased viewing of television. One study of children watching

television found a significant drop in the average metabolic rate during

viewing (Klesges, Shelton, and Klesges). Another study reports that

reducing children's television viewing also affects their eating behavior

(Robinson and Killen). No doubt that children who exercise less tend to

weigh more, but the couch potato argument does not explain why the

enormous weight gains have occurred over the past twenty-five years. The move

to the suburbs and the widespread viewing of television began in the

1950s. Furthermore, the couch potato argument neglects the extraordinary

rise of female participation in athletics. The number of young women

playing a sport in high school has risen from 294,015 in 1971-72 to

2,856,358 in 2002-03, almost a ten-fold increase ("Participation"). Yet

girls, like boys, have gained weight.

The simple answer to why Americans of all ages have steadily gained

weight over the past three decades is that we're consuming more

calories--about 500 more per person per day in 2000 than in 1984. Marion Nestle,

the chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York

University, observes that "food is so overproduced in the U.S. that there

are 3,800 calories per person per day, and we only need about half of

that" (qtd. in Spake and Marcus 43). We're eating more food high in

calories and high in fat than ever before.

Patterns of eating in America have changed over the past three decades.

With more people working longer hours and fewer staying at home, annual

spending in adjusted dollars at restaurants increased nearly by a

factor of ten between 1970 and 2003, from $42.8 billion to $426.1 billion

("Industry"). The growth was most rapid among fast-food chains, which by

1999 were opening a new restaurant every two hours(Schlosser,

"Bitter"). According to Eric Schlosser,

In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2001, they

spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more money on fast

food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or

new cars. They spend more money on fast food

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