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Childhood Obesity in the United States: Causes of an Epidemic

Updated on April 29, 2014
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Obesity in the U.S.

Once an attractive signifier of gluttony due to wealth and elite social status, excess weight has become stigmatized and associated with negative characteristics today, such as unattractiveness or laziness. Despite these negative connotations and widespread scientific evidence of the health risks associated with being overweight, obesity has become a global epidemic; worldwide, “overnutrition [now] rivals undernutrition as the chief food problem even in developing countries” (Harris et al. 212).

The United States is certainly no exception: as of this year, "one in three adults [are] considered clinically obese, along with one in five kids, and 24 million Americans are afflicted by type 2 diabetes, often caused by poor diet, with another 79 million people having pre-diabetes" (Moss).

In fact, obesity has become so rampant amongst Americans that even our pets suffer from it, with 23-41% of dogs overweight, 5.1% of dogs obese, and 6.4% of cats obese (Lund 180-181, 183). These already outrageous numbers are only expected to increase, as more and more of the younger generations in the U.S. fall prey to manipulative marketing techniques, inadequate nutritional education, lack of healthy choices in school, and more.

The issue of obesity in general is difficult to tackle because it “results from a complex combination of genetics, family, and psychological variables and a host of environmental factors that affect diet, physical activity, or both” (Harris et al. 212). Nevertheless, it is essential that we address this epidemic, specifically in terms of childhood obesity.

Children and adolescents are particularly susceptible to excess weight gain for numerous reasons, several of which I would like to examine, including the availability and affordability of healthy food, parental diet and influence, children’s food culture, and marketing techniques aimed at the younger generations.

There are often limitations on a family's access to affordable, unprocessed, nutritious foods.
There are often limitations on a family's access to affordable, unprocessed, nutritious foods. | Source

Availability and Affordability of Healthy Food

There are several aspects of availability and affordability to recognize. One primary concern is the increasing prevalence of food deserts as capitalistic business models drive major “supermarkets out of cities and into the suburbs” (Russell and Heidkamp 1199).

A food desert is defined as “an urban or rural area with significantly limited access to retail sources of healthy and affordable food, due to a combination of socioeconomic disadvantages and physical distance” (Russell and Heidkamp 1197), and is created when a big chain grocery store closes in an area, but only after driving local small markets out of business.

Between lack or expense of transportation in these areas, a food desert leaves families with limited or no access to affordable, fresh, and healthy foods and forces parents to be reliant on inexpensive, prepackaged, energy-dense, and nutrient-poor foods to feed their kids, which have been proven to “[increase] the prevalence of diet-related health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity” (Russel and Heidkamp 1199) in both adults and children.

The increasing rate of excess weight and obesity amongst Americans demonstrates “the importance of community food environments and of food costs and availability of healthy foods, particularly in inner-city and rural areas” (Alaimo 286).

Parents have a lot of leverage in influencing their child's eating habits.
Parents have a lot of leverage in influencing their child's eating habits. | Source

Parental Influence

With greater availability and affordability of healthy food options, parents would have the opportunity to choose a more nutritionally adequate diet for their children; that being said, parents must also choose a more nutritionally adequate diet for themselves in order to prevent obesity in their children.

It has been observed that “parental weight status (obese vs. lean) affects a child’s food preference more than does the child’s own weight status” (Klesges et al. 860); in other words, parents’ diet has a direct and strong influence on the preferences and choices of their kids. This is essential, “given that available evidence suggests that children [naturally] prefer foods high in fat, sodium, and sugar” (Klesges et al. 859); without parental guidance, adolescents would choose nutritionally-poor foods with a high caloric content, the type of foods that taste good and give immediate gratification but fail to keep you full, which leads to snacking on more energy-dense foods, fueling the cycle of unhealthy and excessive dietary intake that causes obesity.

Even before children are born and parents are making a conscious influence on their habits, the diet and weight status of pregnant women has a direct impact on their child’s health and risk for childhood obesity; in reality, “preventing childhood obesity begins before the child is even conceived. A woman can significantly decrease the chances of having an obese child by treating her own obesity before becoming pregnant” (Agadoni).

After becoming pregnant, evidence suggests that a mother’s dietary intake affects her child’s future taste preferences due to the essential “flavoring” of amniotic fluid, which the fetus ingests; the same is true for breast milk during breastfeeding after the baby is born (Savage et al.). The impact of parental, particularly maternal, dietary decisions is thus crucial from before conception all the way throughout adolescence.

Kids experience peer pressure about what they eat as much as they do about their clothes, appearance, interests, and more.
Kids experience peer pressure about what they eat as much as they do about their clothes, appearance, interests, and more. | Source

Children's Food Culture

Even with positive parental guidance and education when it comes to nutrition, kids face a highly influential “children’s food culture” (Ludvigsen and Scott 418) in school and other social arenas, such as sports teams or daycare.

This culture puts a tremendous amount of pressure on kids, who are trying to choose between foods that their parents have taught them are healthy and foods that their peers have deemed socially acceptable; this “makes it very difficult for [them] to choose a balanced diet, as healthy food challenges some fundamental beliefs about what it means to be a child” (Ludvigsen and Scott 418).

Food and beverage products advertised to young people often convey being “anti-adult” (Harris et al. 215), forming a clear delineation between “adult food” and “kid food” that adolescents latch onto. Between marketing and societal standards, it is expected that children desire unhealthy “junk food” and are viewed as a social outcast for disagreeing with the norm. As with clothing or music tastes, adolescents often choose to abide by the children’s food culture norms “as a form of ‘social camouflage’ [that] reduces the risk of teasing” and aids with “peer acceptance, identity formation, and in signifying group belonging” (Ludvigsen and Scott 422).

So, while most children demonstrate a sufficient understanding of the relationship between diet and health, they exhibit a significant knowledge-behavior gap in their taste preferences and consumption practices (Ledvigsen and Scott 419).

Children's food culture generally dictates that unhealthy "kid" foods are preferable to healthy "adult" foods.
Children's food culture generally dictates that unhealthy "kid" foods are preferable to healthy "adult" foods. | Source
High sugar, salt, and fat foods are marketed to children by associating them with fun, happiness, and popularity.
High sugar, salt, and fat foods are marketed to children by associating them with fun, happiness, and popularity. | Source

Manipulative Marketing

While this knowledge-behavior gap is influenced by children’s food culture, children’s food culture itself is generated greatly by marketing techniques aimed at children and adolescents. As I mentioned before, companies place a great deal of importance on marketing their products as being “anti-adult” or “kids-only,” which is highly appealing to young people because it gives them a greater sense of identity as separate individuals from their parents.

Adolescents see foods and beverages—most notably “confectionery, sweetened cereals, fast food, savory snacks, and soft drinks”—in television commercials, online advertisements, as product placements in movies, T.V. shows, music, and video games, as sponsors of sports and other entertainment events, and more, resulting in approximately 5,500 food-related ads per year (Harris et al. 212-213).

The messages portrayed in these commercials and advertisements are damaging to children’s perceptions of food and nutrition; they communicate quite clearly that unhealthy eating habits (consuming calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods) lead to positive outcomes, “inlcud[ing] fun, happiness, and being ‘cool’” (Harris et al. 213). This sentiment sounds dangerously familiar to another advertising campaign that put Americans up in arms, which Kelly Brownell, a Yale University professor of psychology and public health, keenly observed:

"As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco" (Moss).

The toll on public health is apparent: obesity “in the United States has more than tripled in just three decades” (Harris et al. 212) as companies have succeeded to “hook” Americans, especially adolescents, on energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods—an addiction arguably worse than cigarettes, as Brownell says.

In a direct connection to children’s food marketing, studies have shown that a child’s sugar/fat/salt (SFS) palate rating is positively correlated with “detailed mental representations of fast food and soda brands . . . developed via advertising and experience” (Cornwell and McAlister 428). Manipulative marketing techniques have proven harmful to children’s mentality about food, leading to increased rates of childhood obesity.

Behind The Shady World of Marketing Junk Food to Kids - Diggnation

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Need for Change

Put simply, “obese children tend to become obese adults” (Barness et al.).

As one of the leading causes of preventable death in the United States, obesity is an epidemic that cannot be ignored. The causes of American overeating and poor diet must be researched, examined, and reformed beginning at a young age to teach healthy eating habits, prevent childhood obesity, and therefore aid in preventing adult obesity.

Prominent issues like availability and affordability of healthy foods, food deserts, importance and influence of parental diet, children’s food culture, and marketing aimed at adolescents are excellent starting points that are gathering the attention of researchers worldwide. In order to increase our national health—and global health as human beings—significant changes in our food culture must be made, and beginning with making changes for the younger generations will benefit the entire population.

References

Agadoni, Laura. "How the Eating Habits of Pregnant Mothers Affect Their Child."
Livestrong.com. 13 May 2011: n. page. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <http://www.livestrong.com/article/441572-how-the-eating-habits-of-pregnant-mothers-affect-the-childs-preferences/>.

Alaimo, Katherine. "Food Insecurity in the United States: An Overview." Topics in Clinical Nutrition. 20.4 (2005): 281-298. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.

Barness, Lewis. A., et al. "Obesity: Genetic, molecular, and environmental aspects." American Journal of Medical Genetics. 143A.24 (2007): 3016–3034. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

Cornwell, T. Bettina, and Anna R. McAlister. "Alternative thinking about starting points of obesity. Development of child taste preferences." Appetite. 56. (2011): 428-439. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.

Harris, Jennifer L., et al. "A Crisis in the Marketplace: How Food Marketing Contributes to Childhood Obesity and What Can Be Done." Annual Review of Public Health. 30. (2009): 211-225. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

Klesges, Robert C., et al. "Parental influence on food selection in young children and its relationships to childhood obesity." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 53.4 (1991): 859-864. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

Ludvigsen, Anna, and Sara Scott. "Real Kids Don't Eat Quiche - What Food Means to Children." Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research. 12.4 (2009): 417-436. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.

Lund, Elizabeth M., et al. "Prevalence and Risk Factors for Obesity in Adult Dogs from Private US Veterinary Practices." International Journal of Applied Research In Veterinary Medicine. 4.2 (2006): 177-186. Web. 1 Nov. 2013. <http://www.jarvm.com/articles/Vol4Iss2/Lund.pdf>.

Moss, Michael. "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food." New York Times 20 Feb 2013, n. pag. Web. 1 Nov. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&>.

Russel, Scott E., and C. Patrick Heidkamp. "'Food desertification': The loss of a major supermarket in New Haven, Connecticut." Applied Geography. 31. (2011): 1197-1209. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.

Savage, Jennifer S., et al. "Parental Influence on Eating Behavior: Conception to Adolescence." Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. 35.1 (2007): 22-34. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

© 2014 Niki Hale

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    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 3 years ago

      An excellent article highlighting the need for a quick and radical re-think of the food we eat, to avoid the consequent diseases that follow a bad diet. Up, interesting and useful

    • puremma profile image

      Main Brothers Academy 2 years ago from Denville, NJ

      Gosh, food deserts are awful. Never heard of them before.

    • tata799 profile image

      Tarek Nofal. 2 years ago from Kuwait

      good topic

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