I was recently asked this question about obesity: Can you explain some of the factors that contribute to the problem of childhood obesity? Obviously it’s a multi-faceted problem, and it would be great to know more about how to contextualize it.
Therefore, I am going to do my best to start to answer this question and at least give you a better idea of what is going on and why obesity is not only an epidemic, but recently also now recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association. (See this article for more information on obesity being recognized as a disease: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/business/ama-recognizes-obesity-as-a-disease.html?_r=1&).
Obesity is definitely a multi-faceted problem, which occurs when there is an excess proportion of total body fat. The most common way to determine if someone is obese is by calculating their body mass index (BMI), according to their height and weight. Here is a great site with a BMI calculator if you are curious to know your, or your child’s, BMI. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/obesity/BMI/bmicalc.htm
A person is considered obese if their BMI is over 30. So, it is pretty simple to determine IF someone is obese, but the cause of obesity is more complicated and there is no one single answer. The easy answer would be that obesity occurs when someone takes in more calories than he or she burns and eventually has an excess proportion of total body fat. So, it may seem simple—to prevent obesity just don’t consume more calories than your body can burn, but it really is not that easy. How about age, gender, genetics, environmental factors (which I will speak more about), psychological factors, physical activity (or lack of), illnesses, medications, etc.?
A person’s environment I think is one of the most important to mention, especially since it is something that is in our control and involves our lifestyle behaviors, including eating habits and physical activity. Additionally, when speaking about children I think mentioning one’s environment is imperative since they are not completely in control of their own environment, but are rather dependent on their parents, caregivers, teachers, etc. to provide a healthy environment AND to encourage a healthy lifestyle.
I would like to mention the term “toxic environment,” which was coined by Kelly Brownell, Ph.D. and stated that we live in a “toxic environment” which is an environment that encourages overeating and physical inactivity. In particular, we live in an environment where there is unhealthy food readily available, and cheap, and is heavily marketed. …And coupled with that more and more individuals live a sedentary lifestyle by watching TV, using computers, and playing video games instead of being active. To make it worse, how about the larger portion sizes? I remember growing up and playing outside after school. I remember new and exciting outdoor toys and games. When is the last time a kid preferred to play outside instead of watch TV or play on the PlayStation, Wii, Nintendo, or other new electronic gadgets that are now available?
Therefore, I am not going to blame an individual for being obese or blame parents for their children being obese, but the average person CAN help themselves by making healthier choices and being active. Once again, obesity is multi-faceted, so although making lifestyle changes may be an easy answer (although not necessarily easy to do) it is also a great start.
I could continue to write about this topic and give tips on how parents can help their children (my doctoral dissertation* was looking at family environment variables and predicting pre-schoolers fruit and vegetable intake), but for now read this and think about how an individual, or rather how you, can be healthier by first changing some of your behaviors. If there are additional questions I would be more than happy to write more on this topic, so ask away……..
* If you are interested in my dissertation you can review the article published on it here: http://www.jphres.org/index.php/jphres/article/view/jphr.2012.e22/html