The statistics regarding obese and overweight Americans are staggering and we have been seeing numbers rise for many years now. According to the U.S. government, 68 percent of all American adults are overweight or obese and nearly 34 percent are obese. The numbers are important because the health risks associated with carrying too much weight are dire. Obese adults are at a significantly greater risk for dying from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other complications. They also pay much more in health care than a person with a healthy weight.
Considering the facts, it is naturally important to next look at the weights of American children and to make attempts to keep the younger population from falling into the same trap. Around 12 percent of children between the ages of two and five are overweight and close to 17 percent of those between six and 19 are obese. Clearly the numbers are not as extreme as those for adults, but they are still alarming and too high. And, as with adults, these numbers have been steadily growing over the years.
Positive Government Involvement
Thanks in part to government initiatives such as the First Lady’s healthy school lunches and physical fitness campaigns, the discussion of childhood obesity has been a major part of public discussion. The move to make school lunches healthier has been a major push for Michelle Obama, and an admirable one. Unfortunately, experts believe that it may be too little too late. Research has shown that by the time a child is of school age, he or she has already developed certain tastes and food habits. These are very difficult to break, and presenting healthier options is thought to do very little to change eating routines outside of the school lunch.
Anti-Obesity Campaigns: Broad vs. Targeted
Another concern with these far-reaching anti-obesity campaigns is that they are broad. They target all children, when only about one-fifth really need the help. Some believe that it may be much more useful to target the kids whose eating and exercising habits are very poor. It is also believed that pressuring all children with the message about healthy weight, exercise, and good nutrition could have some unintended negative consequences. When all children are treated equally in the healthy weight campaign, some who are already healthy may begin to feel anxious and as if he or she needs to lose more weight.
Early surveys have attempted to quantify the effect of healthy eating and exercise campaigns on children, including a national study conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. The report found that 30 percent of parents with a child between the ages of six and 14 observed eating behaviors and physical activities that were troubling. Seventeen percent of parents claimed that their children were worried about their weight and seven percent that their kids were feeling bad at school about what they ate.
The anxiety over weight, food, and exercise coincided with a prevalence of school programs monitoring them, according to the study. At school, 37 percent of the children had their height and weight measured, 40 percent were given incentives to increase their physical activity levels, and 59 percent were limited in their junk food consumption while in school. Overall, 82 percent had some sort of obesity prevention programming at school.
The survey does not make a direct connection between the programming and kids’ anxiety or preoccupation with weight and eating, but it does raise important questions and concerns. The study makes no indication as to whether the school programming is actually causing any children to lose weight or become healthier. Furthermore, the statistics should serve as a reminder that children are vulnerable and that while making healthier choices and having a healthy weight are important, so is positive self-image and self-esteem.
Effects of too Much Pressure
The results of the survey do not indicate that pushing children to be healthier will cause more of them to develop eating disorders, however, the early findings are startling. They show that kids are feeling pressure to be thinner, to make better eating choices, and to get more exercise. When children feel pressure, the results are not always positive. While the programing should not go away, because being healthier is important, it does need to be sensitive to the vulnerabilities of kids and adolescents. A harsh and punitive system of achieving healthy weights will not be beneficial if it churns out anxious, worried children with a potential for eating disorders.