Who Caused the Childhood Obesity Epidemic? (Pedcast)



I don’t know about you, but I am saddened when I look at many of today’s American children because so many are either overweight or frankly obese. Stop and think about how obesity can fundamentally change a child’s entire childhood. Talk to a very overweight child and you are likely to hear a description of not being chosen to participate in sports with other kids, feeling chronically like a failure, having severe bouts of sadness and guilt, being embarrassed by their bodies, and resenting other children who are normal weight. For many of these overweight children, their childhoods are filled with isolation and shame rather than optimism and joy. Fact: America is now up to 35% of children being overweight, 20% of which are morbidly obese, tripling since 1970! What a tragedy.


What has happened to us to make obesity rates far higher than they were just a generation ago? The major health problems for today’s children aren’t meningitis, pneumonia, or sepsis like in the past but rather obesity and the metabolic difficulties that extend from being overweight. So, the question that often pops into my head is, what changed in our culture that made this state of affairs happen and who is responsible for these changes? Why are children so much heavier than they were just a generation ago and most importantly, what can we do to reverse this horrible trend? Weighty important questions and topics that we are going to tackle in today’s pedcast. Stay informed, stay engaged, and of course, stay tuned.


Musical Intro


Moving in the Wrong direction

For the first time in my lifetime, life expectancy of Americans is beginning to decline.  Many fear that when today’s obese children reach adulthood, they will suffer from a litany of degenerative diseases that come along with obesity shortening their life expectancy.  Don’t think obesity is associated with various diseases? Think again. It is now well accepted that heart and vascular diseases like stroke and heart attack, adult onset type 2 diabetes, hypertension, liver/gallbladder diseases, and some types of cancer are all associated with obesity in adults and children.  Look at the trend toward obesity over the past fifty years and you can’t help but be scared about the future for today’s children.



How did we get here?

Assuming that the physiology and metabolism of children today is the same as it has been in children for thousands of years, you have to conclude that something in the way we are raising our children is causing them to become ponderous.  Experts and researchers have many theories about what is causing many of today’s children to become overweight and obese. It is likely that many factors are to blame.  As you will quickly see, there are a multitude of shifts and changes in 21st century childhoods that have converged to put more weight on children. Three major trends have been game changers however– less physical activity among children, greater quantities and different kinds of foods being served to children, and what I call miscellaneous factors. Let’s break these down a little further and see what caused the changes.



Trend #1-Lack of exercise   Children today are spending, on average, 50% less time outdoors exercising than their parents did just a generation ago. Why is this so you ask?  Because of unintended consequences stemming from decisions that adults are making. Let me explain by showing you some examples:

     News Organizations such as cable news and newspapers:  In recent years, media outlets have been obsessed with childhood abductions leading all of us to develop a heightened fear of childhood kidnappings. We talked about this in my last pedcast about “Free Range” childhoods, where I pointed out that the risk of a stranger abduction is very low, but media exposure to these events is very high. Today’s parents have developed an irrational fear of letting their children outdoors unsupervised because of a what turns out to be an irrational fear of stranger abduction.

     City planners and politicians: Tight city budgets, urban sprawl, and fear of liability has city planners and politicians  averse to building sidewalks, parks, and green spaces where children can play. Less outdoor safe places to play means less of childhood is done outdoors.

     Educators and Courts: The push to create educational equality has led to a decline in neighborhood schools where children can walk to and from school, traditionally a major source of exercise for past generations. For most children, the walks to and from have been replaced by bus and car rides.

     Competitive Parents: Yes, parents. Parental competitiveness and their urge to create the perfect resume for their children have encouraged many parents to inadvertently create childhoods that are lacking in unstructured physical activity. Pearl-For many parents, tutoring has replaced tag.

     Manufacturers of Video Games and Electronics: The explosion of video games, mobile devices, TV on demand, and other screen technologies, have drawn children away from playing with one another actively and fostered an indoor lifestyle that is sedentary and isolating.

     Automobile manufacturers: The increasing wealth of families has allowed them to own multiple cars, creating a culture where walking anywhere is an oddity. “Walking to the store”, are you crazy? Our grandparents did that but not us.


Trend #2- Food and drink that is being consumed by children has changed radically in the past 40 years: Today’s children are eating, on average, 350 calories more, per day, than children did in the 1970s  and much more of it is processed.

These extra calories, the equivalent of a small serving of fries and a sugary drink, slowly add up over time, putting extra pounds on many children. Let’s take a look at why children are getting more food than children in the past. Who’s to blame?

       Restaurant owners and food manufacturers: Portion sizes served in today’s restaurants are about 30% bigger today than they were just 23 years ago. 

Of course they are. Owners of restaurants want you to love the experience you have at their eatery and want you satisfied and anxious to come back. And they are. American children and families are now eating a lot more of their meals outside the home. Some estimates put that percentage as high as 40% of all food a child eats is purchased outside their home. Shockingly, in a recent CDC survey, 34% of children ages 2-19 years ate fast food on any given day! Restaurant food is not just a convenience anymore; it has become an integral part of American family life.


       Parents have some blame here as well since they are looking for inexpensive and conveniently easy foods to serve their children: This fact leads their children straight to a diet full of processing, sugar, salt, and saturated fats… quick route to obesity.

       The American workplace-Families often have working parents as the only caregivers for their children. When parents are busy working, that leaves precious little time for them to go food shopping, meal planning, meal preparation, and serving. Those tasks have been outsourced to restaurants and schools and we just got a glimpse of what they have done with those tasks.

       Corporate executives, Company Shareholders, and Marketing Companies: Wow, do these folks have some explaining to do. Their processing of foods have resulted in the production and marketing of low quality food to children with television adds as their main weapon. Oh, and while we are talking about these folks, don’t let me forget to throw into the same category, well known actors, singers, and athletes who use their name recognition to convince families across America to buy foods and beverages that make their children fat.


And finally Trend #3- Miscellaneous factors 

      Computer and TV manufacturers: These are the people that have created screens so engaging and portable that using them has replaced many of the activities of a traditional childhood.

      Pediatricians, other Health professionals, and American Farmers who collectively have used far more antibiotics than necessary in the past. Some researchers think that repeated exposure to these broad spectrum antibiotics, particularly under 2 years of age, may be contributing to the current obesity epidemic.  Evidence seems to be proving them correct.

       Chemical and plastics manufacturers– Many of the chemicals that are used in food bottling and canning, pesticides/herbicides, detergents, flame retardants, and other household products have been shown to alter delicate hormone systems in children. Researchers call these chemicals endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDC’s.  There is a growing body of research that blame EDC’s for some of the extra weight children are accumulating today.

So who is responsible?

So who is responsible for for obesity epidemic? Whose behind this terrible health crisis that seems to be defining the current generation of children? Well, actually, if you think about the list I just reviewed, all of us are to blame. Some factors are more important than others but in reality, at the root of the problem, we all stand to share some of the blame: from the soda and processed/ fast food industries who got our children hooked on cheap satisfying food and drink, to hyper caloric supersized restaurant foods, to the automobile producers of saved us from walking, to city planners who made cities so large that vehicles are our only way of getting around, to politicians who made it possible for our children not to walk to school, to the television, video game, computer manufacturers and movie directors who keep our children stationary with their screens of all sorts, to the marketers and celebrity sponsors who so effectively convinced our children that they couldn’t live without sports drinks, sugary cereals, sodas, and every brand of fast food imaginable, to medical doctors and farmers who overused antibiotics for the past 50 years, to parents who have allowed their children to gradually become more and more sedentary and consume poor quality food.  Everyone was just doing their jobs or what they thought was appropriate for children but the end result has been a disaster for the health of today’s children.


Doc Smo’s Opinion

Here is my opinion; we must all stop playing the blame game and just do what is right for children. We must start making our children’s lifestyle healthier and returning them to normal weight. We know many of the forces that got us to this state of affairs, now it is time to start reversing them, one at a time. We all have had a hand in creating the tragedy of childhood obesity and we will all need to be the solution. Specifics of how we collectively can achieve this goal will be the subject of future pedcasts.  Stay tuned for these posts. I feel certain, that collectively we can fix this.


I hope you found that discussion interesting and thought provoking. If you enjoy thinking about child health and wellness with pedcasts, consider taking a moment to write a short review on iTunes or Facebook. Those reviews help others find my blog and podcast. And of course, your comments are always welcome. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, recording on location in NYC, setting the record straight on who’s responsible for all those children who are overweight. Until next time.

Many thanks to my capable editors, Dr. Charlotte Rouchouze and Dr. Monica Miller