Saturday, September 09, 2006

Overweight children lead to overweight teens and adults

As I talked about in my previous post, obesity is becoming a problem for an increasing number of school children at the same time school p.e. programs fall by the wayside. In a new study published in the journal Pediatrics this month, doctors have found that being obese at any time in childhood greatly increases the probablity of a child continuing to be obese into their teen years.

Results showed that children who were ever overweight in the preschool years were five times more likely to be overweight at age 12 than the rest of the cohort. They defined overweight as having a body mass index (BMI) greater than the 85th percentile for age.

During elementary school years, children who were overweight at 7, 9, and 11 years of age had a 374-fold increased risk of being heavy at age 12 than those who remained below the 85th percentile.

Children who were overweight were 374 times more likely to be overweight by 12 than those who had not been overweight! That means it's a virtual guarantee: if a kid gets fat, they stay fat for life. And of course you know what the effects of obesity are on a person: generally poor health and a shorter life span.

Now as to the causes of this childhood obesity, lack of exercise is not the sole culprit. It's probably not even the major culprit, although definitely a powerful contributor. The number one cause of obesity these days is the food we eat. This is not some new discovery. We've talked about it on this blog before. It's not even that good, healthy food isn't available, it's that poor people can't afford it. This article illustrates that reality quite clearly; even among those living in poverty, obesity is prevalent:

One quarter of New York City's 1.9 million children live in poverty -- 50 percent higher than the United States average -- and many of these children are overweight, a food supply group said on Tuesday.
The Food Bank for New York City said more than 40 percent of children in the Head Start program, which fosters healthy development of children up to age 5 from low-income families, were overweight or obese.

"Unfortunately what that means is they're buying the food that's highest in fat content and calorie content because the cheapest food available tends to be fatty food."

Overall, nearly half the city's primary school children were overweight or obese, the report said.

So they eat junk food and they can't exercise it off. Plus which, the more chaotic eating habits of the poor often cause their bodies to retain more fat, and for these kids things like breakfast and dinner aren't guaranteed. The effects of this diet are documented by Morgan Spurlock both in his excellent documentary Supersize Me and his book "Don't Eat This Book."

You might, at this point, be thinking that this is a rather intractable problem caused by natural market forces that drive the price of highly processed , low-nutrition foods down. That's not the case at all, however. It turns out that the cheap, high fat and sugar foods that kids are eating are those supported by massive US subsidies for farmers. From Common Dreams:

By guaranteeing U.S. farmers a minimum payment for commodities such as corn, rice and soybeans, the government encourages overproduction. That drives down the market price, forcing even higher subsidies and creating surpluses that can be shipped to Jamaica and elsewhere.

Jamaica is mentioned in this context to provide an ironic example of how this system virtually decides what people eat.

Filmmaker Stephanie Black found it both ironic and outrageous that American imports could be sold on the island for less than home-grown Jamaican food. She blamed the problem on free trade.

As a condition for helping Jamaica service its large foreign debt, international lending agencies demanded that the country keep its tariffs low. The government was unable to bar American sugar, grain, and other food products from the island, so its own farmers were stuck.

The truth is that the same thing happens in the United States. As is pointed out in another excellent book, "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser, the USDA, which overseas the national school lunch program, buys as much of this low-grade, cheap food as possible. That's both to service these subsidized foods and to provide a lot of meals to kids at the lowest possible price per unit. However, this is having a disastrous effect on the health of our population. This effect has been recognized by those who study obesity.

Farm policies such as government agricultural subsidies have been damaging peoples' health for decades, leading obesity expert Philip James told the 10th International Congress on Obesity in Sydney on Monday.

"The over-production of oil, fat and sugar, largely due to government subsidies to protect farm industry revenues, has contributed over decades to the health crisis we have today."

The point is that obesity isn't happening now for no reason. Specifically, we can pinpoint two reasons: farm subsidies and decreased funding for p.e. in schools. I don't know if it's as obvious to the readers as it is to me, but it seems that we could easily solve both problems by taking the funding from one and give it to the other. This seems like a sensible solution because the vast majority of subsidies go not to the poor individual farmer, but to the richest (from the Common Dreams article):

There is no doubt, by the way, that farm subsidies are corporate welfare par excellence. Although the program began as a way to aid poor family farmers in the 1930s, by last year nearly three-quarters of the money went to the richest 10 percent of American farmers.

Recipients of five- and six-figure farm subsidy payments included John Hancock Life Insurance Co., Chevron, banker David Rockefeller, and basketball star Scottie Pippen. Even former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay collected a few bucks.

If that's not a sufficient argument against farm subsidies, I don't know what is.

Obesity may be caused by many things that we can't change, such as the fact that food is always available to most of us and that we don't do much physical labor any more. But it's also caused by things that we can control, such as the content of our food and the availability of exercise. If obesity in children leads to obesity in adulthood, it must become a higher priority of ours to make sure that children eat quality food and get good exercise.

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