Solving the obesity crisis

I read two items in the news that are guaranteed to make obese people and the parents who raise them feel guilty. First, obese people are contributing disproportionately to global warming. Apparently, because obese people are larger, they need more calories to sustain their weight. This also translates into the need for more fuel to move them around on cars and public transportation. According to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, obese people on average require eighteen percent more calories than people of the same height and age of normal weight.

The second story (and to me the more frightening one) is the lead story in today’s Washington Post, Obesity Threatens a Generation. Apparently, the youth of today who are obese or even overweight have a much higher likelihood of developing chronic diseases earlier in life.

Doctors are seeing confirmation of this daily: boys and girls in elementary school suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and painful joint conditions; a soaring incidence of type 2 diabetes, once a rarity in pediatricians’ offices; even a spike in child gallstones, also once a singularly adult affliction. Minority youth are most severely affected, because so many are pushing the scales into the most dangerous territory.

I am worried not only for the children out there who are overweight but also for my own daughter. She had times in her childhood when she was technically obese. For a few years, we enrolled her in Taekwondo. During that time, she had a normal weight and was in great physical condition. Eventually chose to give up the sport to concentrate on her academics. We encouraged her to exercise but she got out of the habit.

Now that she is eighteen and is earning her own money, she has the freedom to buy whatever she wants. Apparently, our choice of junk foods is very modest, so she has begun to buy her own food. Her food choices have been discouraging. She eats what most in her generation eat: a preponderance of junk food. My wife and I have of course registered of concern, but are being careful not to overdo it. As a young adult, she has the right to make her own choices and too much nagging is likely to be counterproductive. Fortunately, her job at a bookstore provides exercise simply because associates are so often on their feet. That helps.

Obesity runs in my wife’s side of the family. I am hoping my daughter did not pick up that particular gene. Given that my wife is one of many Americans struggling with obesity, I cannot help but wonder if ten or twenty years down the line, or perhaps even sooner, my daughter will be struggling with the same issues. I hope of course that she will emulate me and eat better, and exercise regularly. Like most teenagers, she thinks she is immortal. She realizes she may have to eat better and exercise regularly someday, but for now, she chooses to ignore the issue.

As do a preponderance of our youth, apparently. I am skeptical that today’s youth will find the wherewithal to address the problem as adults. I think without some major societal intervention that it is much more likely that they will stick with their current eating and exercise choices, because it has the feeling of familiarity and thus provides the illusion of comfort in a confusing world.

The consequences for these latest generations are truly dire. Yet there is little in the way of planned action to address these chronic problems. It appalls me to think that I may live to an older age than my daughter, primarily because my mother fed us healthy and nutritious food. Single parent families or dual income families are disproportionately raising today’s generation. That was true for our daughter. We both had full time jobs when our daughter was growing up. Living on one income, however modestly, was out of the question until the last few years. Our daughter ate most of her lunches in the school cafeteria, where she could safely consume the foods she wanted, like pizza, rather than the foods she needed. She fit right in. Her friends largely did the same thing.

I think dual income parenting contributed a lot toward the obesity epidemic. With family time so squeezed, it is not surprising that parents often rustled up meals from of a box or out of a fast food bag. It was also not surprising that our children tended to prefer these meals too. Food vendors do not stay in business by making uninteresting food. In order to attract more business, food had to be jazzed up. In that sense, American capitalism succeeded very well. Over time, we developed strong preferences for this unhealthy kind of food.

Congress may have inadvertently done our kids in too. Our agricultural subsidies, most of which went to subsidizing grains that could rarely turn a profit, made grain incredibly cheap. When certain types of food are cheap to purchase, many of us feel inclined to consume more of them than we used to. It used to be that we would rotate through seasonal foods over the course of a year. With grain cheap all year round, we added more and more grain to our diets. With sugar also artificially cheap, we had a deadly combination: cereals and breads laced with sugars. Cheap grain also encouraged us to give it to our livestock, making the price of meat cost less too. Most foods served in America were relative bargains throughout the latter half of the 20th century. There was little reason for restaurants not to super-size our portions when the ingredients were so cheap.

Our additional eating was one part of the equation. Lack of exercise was the other part. When I was a youth, we were free to roam neighborhoods at will as long as our homework was done and we returned home in time for dinner. Neighborhoods were assumed safe. My parents gave little thought to where we were as long as we were in the neighborhood. We also lacked modern indoor distractions like computers and videogames. Going outside and playing with the kids on the block was a compelling alternative to the drudgery of being home. Modern parents perceive that if they give the same freedom to their children that their children are at risk from child molesters. Parents believe it is safer to keep children at home rather than let them roam the neighborhood. To make this unfortunate reality easier to swallow, we provided indoor amusements for them. The combination of a poor diet and reduced exercise appears to be toxic.

Few of our children are likely to end up in professions where exercise will be built into the jobs. Most are likely to spend their lives much as we do: in offices living sedentary work lives much like Dilbert’s. Perhaps in their off hours they will be able to grab some exercise. That seems unlikely, for they will likely have children of their own at home, and these children will have to be fed and protected.

Our society desperately needs a culture shift. We may need to reduce our workweeks to 35 hours a week simply to allow adults to have time for physical fitness and parenting. An hour-long workout may not be enough, but it is a start. Employers may need to be required to offer exercise facilities to their employees to use at work. Just as you cannot keep horses in the stables for days on end, neither should humans be trapped in cubicles, cars and their homes for days on end. We are built to move, not to sit.

Exercise needs to be seen as a necessary and critical part of being a human being. What has changed over the last generation or two is that most Americans must now dedicate time for exercise. It should be encouraged by our leaders and our employers. Health insurance premiums should be substantially discounted for people who participate in monitored exercise programs. Our children need more than recess and occasional PE classes. They need regular and more vigorous exercise at school, extending the school day if needed, as well as more healthful food in school cafeterias. Since they are children, their weekly exercise should be monitored and tracked by school officials. It may seem offensive to some to require our children to be regularly weighed and tested for their physical fitness at school. However, these prosaic activities also encourage children toward a lifelong appreciation toward the necessity of exercise and healthy eating.

My suspicion is that these are the sorts of steps that must be taken to keep future generations of Americans from being obese, dying prematurely and the obscene health care costs that are associated with obesity. They may seem Big Brotherish, but for the sake of our children, we need to do it.

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