Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Child Abuse

While people are experiencing swelling waistlines at all ages, the most alarming obesity trend is its astonishing rise in children. Today, 35% of American children are overweight or obese. What is today called Type 2 diabetes used to be called adult onset diabetes because it was essentially unheard of in children. No more. We don't know how many children have it because it usually goes undiagnosed, but CDC is currently trying to find out.

As you can imagine, developing Type 2 diabetes in childhood is likely to be a very bad thing to have, but we don't yet have enough experience with it to describe the long-term consequences specifically. Presumably, however, it means that all the bad stuff that happens to older people with diabetes -- heart disease, kidney failure, neuropathy and amputations, blindness -- will happen to people at a younger age, particularly if the disease goes uncontrolled. And these kids have all the other consequences of obesity to contend with.

This is not, however, a sudden epidemic of failure of responsibility or spontaneous gluttony on the part of school children. It is happening for specific, identifiable reasons. In the Annual Review of Public Health (and I am very sorry this is subscription only, the abstract is here), JL Harris and colleagues tell us about one of the most important.

  • The average child in the United States sees 15 television food ads every day, that is 5,500 per year.

  • Food companies also market their products in schools and on the Internet, and they place products in TV shows, movies, video games and music

  • More than 98% of TV food ads seen by children are for high-calorie, low nutrition foods -- full of fat and sugar

  • There is consistent, direct evidence that TV food advertising causes kids to eat the advertised foods

Now, this is obviously not the only influence on children's diets, and parents still have something to do with it. But with more parents working longer hours, more and more of them depend on prepared and take-out foods. The ads targeted largely at adults, for fried chicken and bacon cheeseburgers and pizza delivery, also end up shoving that stuff into children. Our agricultural policy, that subsidizes corn and its sugar that find its way into most of that junk food, either directly or by fattening up the chickens and cattle, makes toxic junk food cheap compared to fruits and vegetables.

This is not a failure of personal responsibility or even a cultural failing. It is a political issue. It is a public health crisis caused by corporate greed. The irresponsibility is not on the part of fat kids and their parents, the irresponsibility is on the part of "food" company executives and the politicians who take their campaign contributions and do their bidding. I put "food" in quotation marks because not so long ago, most of this crap wouldn't even have been recognizable as food. Cheetos? You're supposed to eat that?


kathy a. said...

i imagine that a number of factors are contributing to the trend toward childhood obesity, but food marketing is a biggie. so to speak.

in poorer neighborhoods, too, convenient markets are not available -- at least in many parts of the metro area where i live. maybe the 7-11 or the mom & pop will have bananas or apples every now and then, but fresh produce and other less-processed basics are largely unavailable without a major trek.

don't get me started on school lunches. alice waters started a garden at a berkeley elementary school, and the kids eat the fruits of their labor there -- but that's way out of the norm.

Bix said...

Kathy's point about neighborhoods filled with chips and pop is a good one.

Alice Waters, with all due respect, is out of touch. Over half of all infants and a quarter of all children 1-4 yrs in the US use WIC, our 3rd largest food assistance program. Those are only the ones that participate, not all who are eligible. As I recall, for a long time the only vegetable it covered was carrots.