The recent news about the number of overweight Americans is-to say the least-troubling. According to the National Institutes of Health, one half of all adult Americans are heavier than they should be, while 22 percent are obese (20 percent or more above one’s desirable weight) based on the latest government guidelines. Even worse is the fact that 25 percent of all children and adolescents are considered to be overweight or obese-a figure that’s doubled since the 1960s. What all this adds up to is that Americans are now “the fattest people on earth” according to Michael Fumento, author of the book The Fat of the Land.
The consequences of being overweight were recently driven home by the American Heart Association (AHA) when for the first time it declared that being overweight is a major risk factor for heart disease. Besides heart disease, being overweight also increases one’s risk of developing diabetes, arthritis, and certain types of cancers. The death toll from all of this is estimated to be 300,000 a year, while medical bills and other indirect costs (such as lost productivity) may run as high as $70 billion a year.
It’s little wonder then that Dr. Robert Eckel, an official at the AHA, declared that obesity is a lifelong disease and “is becoming a dangerous epidemic.” Unfortunately, most experts say the problem will get worse before it gets better.
Why are we getting heavier? Well, as has been pointed out, it’s not likely that our genes have suddenly mutated in the past 20 years. Hence, the problem seems tied to so-called lifestyle changes and clearly rooted in one’s culture. What might these lifestyle changes be? Like many of our social ills, at least part of the problem appears to be tied to one’s family.
Over the past 25 years increasing numbers of Americans have been growing up in families in which both parents work outside the home or one parent is absent. Nearly 70 percent of all intact families now have two paychecks coming in and more than one quarter of all children live with a single parent who must also work to survive. As a consequence, many parents spend less time supervising their children. As Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Time Bind, put it, “time is being sucked out of our homes into work.” These sentiments seem to be supported by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, who report that teenagers of all ethnic and income backgrounds say they lack parental guidance and attention, which has been linked with such things as drug use and teen pregnancy. I think it’s also safe to say that obesity could be added to the list.
Like any other behavior, parents must not only convey standards about diet, but also reinforce them. Too often children are free to snack because mom and dad aren’t around. The typical American child now has two or three between-meal snacks a day, usually consisting of chips or ice cream. Or if the parents are around, they’re just too tired to endure the hassle that may ensue if they say no.
Adding to the problem is that few working mothers and even fewer fathers feel like cooking after a long day at work. Hence, the key to eating becomes convenience and not nutritional value. As one working mother put it, “I don’t have time to plan meals, so we eat a lot of fast food and eat out a lot.”
And we are eating out more and more. The average American now eats about four meals a week outside the home. As a matter of fact, almost half the money families spend on food and drinks is consumed outside the home, with one third of that spent on fast food. As most parents know, fast food is not particularly healthy, and the portions are getting bigger. For instance, a double or triple burger, super-large fries, all washed down by a 32-ounce soft drink, amounts to about 1,300 of the 2,200 calories needed each day, plus most of the fat and half the sodium.
Contrast all this with the past, when eating out was a special event and having a soft drink was a treat rather than a dietary staple. More-over, when meals are prepared at home, they increasingly consist of instant mixes, prepackaged and microwave items, that usually have more calories and fat than grandma’s home-cooked meals.
The bottom line is that only 12 percent of the general population and one percent of children eat a diet in accord with USDA standards, and the consequences of poor diets for our children can be severe. Research published in The Journal of Nutrition indicates that kids who are obese run a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, and diabetes as adults.
What to Do
Some have suggested that the answer to our children’s weight problem is to have parents spend more time at home. To do so, some family experts have proposed a 35-hour workweek. However, as good as that may sound, the chances of it happening are slim. Corporate America did not become lean and mean by having employees work fewer hours, and would surely resist any attempt to shorten the workweek. Plus the fact that surveys indicate that workers would be reluctant to trade time for money.
Perhaps the only answer is for parents to provide better direction and guidance during the time they have with their children. And the good news is that parents can make a difference. Research shows that a mother’s active encouragement and guidance has a significant impact on her children’s diet and weight loss. Parental guidance can be crucial when one considers that many scientists believe that children have a natural predisposition for sweet and fatty foods.
Besides direction and guidance, parents also serve as role models for their kids. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that parents who have trouble controlling what they eat tend to have children with the same problem. So parents can obviously help their children and themselves by eating right. Finally, parents influence children by the food they buy. Children, by and large, come to accept the type of food that parents have around the house. Thus by simply providing more wholesome foods for snacks, such as fruit, and not buying potato chips, parents can have their children eating healthier, while at the same time send a subtle message about proper diet that will hopefully sink in over time.
Can American families do better? Although our diets won’t improve overnight, there is reason for optimism. For instance, a survey conducted by the Food Marketing Institute found that 97 percent of shoppers reported they were trying to make changes to ensure healthier diets for their families. So it’s safe to say that most parents want their kids to eat better. Perhaps what is needed is a public awareness campaign to nudge people in the right direction-something akin to the anti-smoking movement, which has some interesting parallels with obesity.
With both smoking and obesity there exists clear scientific evidence about the dangers involved, which is supported by credible and trust-worthy medical authorities. The anti-smoking movement was also characterized by a sense of moderation. People were told of the dangers of smoking, but the messages (particularly in the beginning) were not overly harsh. In terms of diet, the public should not only be warned about the dangers involved but also the benefits of eating right, combined with exercise. On the other hand, telling parents they are slowly killing their children by allowing them to overindulge would turn many people off and defeat the purpose.
Hopefully the recent announcements by the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association will serve as a catalyst for increased public awareness. The problem is serious, and the future health of our children is at stake. Parents need to take action. And when one realizes that we’re getting heavier every year, the sooner the better.