America's Growing Problem: Increasing Levels of Childhood Obesity
In the United States today, 59% of the adult population and more than 25% of Americans under age nineteen meet the definition of being clinically obese, figures that have doubled over the past thirty years.
These ever-increasing percentages have been labeled as reaching epidemic status by the surgeon general. According to Jeffrey P. Koplan, MD, MPH, and William H. Dietz, MD, PhD, in their article Caloric Imbalance and Public Health Policy, “Approximately 60% of overweight 5- to 10-year-old children already have 1 associated biochemical or clinical cardiovascular risk factor, such as hyperlipidemia, elevated blood pressure, or increased insulin level, and 25% have 2 or more” (Koplan and Dietz, 441).
Adults are no better with nearly 80% of those obese having diabetes, high blood cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, gallbladder disease, or osteoarthritis. 40% have two or more of those health issues. Based on these statistics, there is no question that obesity is reaching an epidemic level in the United States and negatively affecting the health of America, especially its younger generation. A national comprehensive obesity awareness and prevention strategy must be developed, focusing on the major cause of the growing epidemic, the changing environment, in order to ensure the health of future generations.
Some are opposed to a national program geared toward obesity prevention, claiming that obesity is a result of genetics and cannot be fixed or addressed in any manner. In her article “Fat and Happy: In Defense of Fat Acceptance,” Mary Ray Worley, a member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, claims that scientists “cannot bring themselves to say that since body size is largely a result of one’s genetic makeup, it’s best to get on with the business of learning to live in the body you have, whatever its size” (Worley, 470).
Her argument, unsubstantiated by documented evidence, revolves around the idea that a person’s weight is predetermined by genes at birth and neither dieting, proper eating, nor exercise will affect the weight of a given individual. She mentions “set-point hypothesis” as support for her argument, an outdated theory of weight study. This theory asserts that the brain constantly adjusts a person’s metabolism and subconsciously manipulates behavior to maintain a target weight. This deterministic approach suggests weight remains constantly at this set point, only altering slightly with age according to a fixed genetic program. Her viewpoint is supported by some scientists, including George A. Bray, Pennington Research Company’s executive director, who states, “Obesity isn’t curable. It’s like high blood pressure. If you don’t take the medication, your blood pressure won’t stay down. And if you don’t take drugs – or do something – to treat obesity, your weight won’t stay down” (Bouchard, 459). Those in Worley and Bray’s camp suggest obesity is incurable in its current state and only genetic altering drugs, if anything, can possibly attempt to solve the obesity problem that has grown to epidemic proportions throughout the United States and the world.
However, many scientists and medical professionals disagree and believe that changing environmental conditions are the major factor contributing to the obesity epidemic. As Koplan and Dietz state in their article, “Genes related to obesity are clearly not responsible for the epidemic of obesity because the gene pool in the United States did not change significantly between 1980 and 1994” (Koplan and Dietz, 441). If genetics are the true cause of obesity as Worley and others claim, then why the dramatic increase in those overweight over the past 20 years? If genes were in fact the case, the same percentage of individuals would be overweight having inherited the “obesity genes” from their parents. However, in a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) titled U.S. Obesity Trends in Adults from 1991-1998, the two broad conclusions reached state, “The prevalence of obesity increased from 12% in the U.S. population in 1991 to 17.9% in 1998. Obesity increased in every state, for both men and women, across all age categories, all races, all educational levels, and regardless of an individual’s smoking status” (CDC, 448). This statement suggests a dramatic increase in obesity throughout the nation in all areas. Genetics alone cannot possibly be the major factor that results in heightened levels of obesity in such a short time.
One factor that has changed over the past few decades as a result of technological and cultural advances is the environment surrounding Americans. As Koplan and Dietz write about the period of increase in question,
“Innumerable environmental changes that foster eating more frequently have occurred: the availability of more food and foods with higher energy content, the growth of the fast food industry, the increased numbers and marketing of snack foods, and an increased time for socializing along with a custom of socializing with food and drink” (Koplan and Dietz, 442).
In this statement, the pair spearheads the changing environment as the main factor resulting in increasing levels of obesity. Unhealthy food surrounds Americans outside and in their homes, making them a major factor influencing health today. With new generations being bombarded by these elements, it is almost impossible for them to avoid their weight from not being affected. Koplan and Dietz support this hypothesis by commenting on the parallel development of the individual and adolescent, stating,
“Opportunities in daily life to burn energy have diminished: children watch more television daily, physical education has been markedly reduced in our schools, many neighborhoods lack sidewalks for safe walking, the workplace has become increasingly automated, household choruses are assisted by labor saving machinery, and walking or bicycling has been replaced by automobile travel for all but the shortest distances” (Koplan and Dietz, 442).
Individuals, especially children, no longer receive proper physical exercise in their daily lives. Where exercise was inherent in the past based on limited technology, today individuals are pampered in every aspect of their lives. For example, instead of walking or bicycling to a destination, people drive their cars since they cut down on travel time and require no physical exertion. Machines perform the strenuous physical tasks of our lives. They further take away from a daily physical regiment through increased mediums of entertainment such as computers and televisions. Recent technological advances simply make life easier, and as a result, the health of the average American has suffered.
This idea is further supported by the opposing theory to the “set-point theory:” the “settling point theory.” This more modern theory proposes that we maintain weight when our various metabolic feedback regions loop, tuned by whatever susceptible genes, and settle into an equilibrium with our environment. As discussed above, recent economic and cultural changes in the environment over the past decades have upset the equilibrium of many individuals.
This upset in equilibrium drives them toward obesity, no longer able to maintain their current weight when phased with the variety of environmental changes that affect health negatively. For example, where thirty years ago more families may have eaten home-cooked dinners nightly together, in this day and age, fast food and other unhealthy variations are the norm. These changes over the past decade resulted in the change in many individuals’ weights toward obesity by upsetting their equilibrium. Now, people are accustomed to these changes and have a much higher set-point weight. After observing the negative environmental changes combined with the negative changes in the development of the individual, it is easy to see how the surrounding environment’s transformation across the past two decades has negatively affected the health of America and led to increased percentages of obesity.
In consideration of these facts, it is necessary to set up a comprehensive national health awareness and prevention program. First, the program must make the nation aware of the hazardous health conditions associated with obesity. Americans must be aware of the negative effects of obesity as well as the positive aspects to maintaining a lower weight through physical activity and other means. As Koplan and Dietz state, “Modest weight losses of 5% to 10% of body weight improve glucose tolerance, hyperlipidemia, and blood pressure in obese adults. Because physical activity may prevent obesity, improve obesity-associated comorbidities, reduce mortality, and have beneficial effects on a variety of other chronic diseases, strategies to increase physical activity must be implemented for the entire population” (Koplan and Dietz, 442).Continued on Next Page »