4 Childhood Obesity Myths

Childhood obesity myths abound. What's really causing this epidemic?

childhood obesity myth - active kids can be overweight - boy playing in sprinkler
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Childhood obesity is constantly in the news, whether it's new and frightening statistics and scientific studies, or efforts to treat and prevent the condition. But childhood obesity myths are prevalent too. Do you know fact from fiction when it comes to this condition? Persistent myths and misunderstandings can keep kids from growing up healthy, so it's important to know the truth, and know what you can (and can't) do to help kids reach a healthy weight.

Myth 1: Childhood obesity is all parents' fault. Maybe, sometimes. After all, parents are the ones who buy their family's food. They set rules about screen time and they encourage physical activity—or don't. But some kids may be genetically predisposed to obesity, so parents' best efforts aren't enough. Some kids may have one parent who promotes healthy eating, and one parent or grandparent who doesn't. Some parents may not understand good nutrition practices, or may not be able to afford or even find healthy foods in their neighborhood (more than 15 million American kids live in food-insecure households). And once kids are away at school for several hours a day, parents have less control over kids' choices.

Myth 2: Childhood obesity is caused by fast food. It's true that especially in the U.S., fast food is plentiful, inexpensive, and unhealthy—loaded with way too much fat, salt, and empty calories.

Even in more upscale restaurants, portion sizes are unnecessarily huge. But we all have the option to avoid fast food (packing our own lunches and snacks helps), or to make smarter choices when we do eat out, like selecting apples instead of French fries. However, the restaurant industry makes this difficult for parents by advertising unhealthy foods directly to kids.

One piece of good news: The percentage of U.S. teens (high school students) who drink soda every day is dropping. It went from 27% in 2013 to 20% in 2015. That's a small, but healthy, step in the right direction. 

Myth 3: Childhood obesity is caused by too much TV and video games. We are a sedentary society, no doubt about it, and we (kids and adults) do spend too much time staring at screens instead of moving our bodies. It's important for parents to set screen-time limits and provide alternative options for active play. But some video games actually do encourage exercise. And even a total ban on TV and other screens won't prevent obesity if kids eat a poor diet or have other complicating factors.

Myth 4: Childhood obesity is caused by bad school lunches. Yes, school lunches need a nutritional upgrade. Too many of their calories come from simple carbohydrates and fat, their sodium levels are way out of whack, and starchy vegetables are served instead of leafy green ones. And for many families, free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches are critical to keeping kids from going hungry, so they have no choice but to eat whatever they are served.

But bad school lunches can be counteracted by healthy eating at other times of day, by ample exercise, in school and out—and by supporting school and government efforts to make improvements to school meals.

The truth is, childhood obesity is a complicated problem, and we need lots of different solutions to resolve it. That goes for both individuals and for our society as a whole.


Trust for America's Health and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America. September 1, 2016.

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