Common Causes of Childhood Obesity

Child eating a bowl of cereal. JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/ Getty Images

I have long considered the causes and cures of epidemic obesity in children and adults alike - hard, but not complicated. Simple, just not easy. In fact, I thought we might benefit considerably from the crude wisdom expressed in Casablanca about rounding up the usual suspects.

But since there is a tendency to make this problem complicated, as well as hard – and frankly, we don’t need any unnecessary obstacles – it’s worth deconstructing those arguments.They tend to come under two principal banners.

Personal Responsibility

At one extreme of a spectrum linking will to health is the argument that we would all be lean and healthy if we were just sufficiently, personally responsible. At the other end of the same spectrum is a form of abject environmental determinism that seems to imply that not only should the way be paved, but someone should carry us along it.

The truth most of us can embrace resides somewhere in the middle, of course. If with great power comes great responsibility, it stands to reason that for any of us to take responsibility, we must be suitably empowered. With regard to weight and health, all too often the situation is the just the opposite; we are systematically disempowered by factors beyond our control.

There is also the problem of establishing a case for causality. Are we to infer from epidemic obesity in the modern era that the current crop of Homo sapiens somehow wound up with a lesser endowment of personal responsibility than every prior cohort?

 That seems rather far-fetched in general, and there isn’t a shred of scientific evidence to substantiate the case.

But if the argument is applied to children, it becomes entirely ludicrous. Clearly the current cohort of 7-year-olds is put together just like every prior cohort, and yet they are much more prone to obesity.

This is not about some change in the ambient responsibility of 7-year-olds, but something else.

We’ll come to that something else momentarily, but for now a reminder that the rebuttal to personal responsibility can be taken too far. Once the way is suitably paved, we are all responsible for walking ourselves along it- and taking our 7-year-olds by the hand as we do so.

Exotic Theories

The second banner, exotic theories, is where all the thinking about reasons for epidemic obesity unrelated to how much junk we eat and how little exercise we do are cataloged. This list includes suppositions about endocrine disrupting chemicals, the effects of hormones in our meat, changes to our microbiome, and even certain viral exposures.

Each of these, and others like them, may have some validity. But since epidemic obesity is, overwhelmingly, explained by increased consumption of calories from decreasingly nutritious sources, and concomitant declines in daily physical activity – the exotic theories collectively account only for what is left unexplained. That isn’t much.

So fretting excessively over exotic theories while doing far too little about the obvious would be like refusing to wear seat belts out of worry that there might be toxic chemicals in the strap.

 The lesser, more remote worry should not distract from the greater, more immediate peril. Yet all too often, it does.

Which leads to a third banner, and the one I think most warrants our collective attention:

The Usual Suspects

We peddle to one another, and preferentially to our children, junk food engineered to be irresistibly tasty, designed to maximize the calories it takes to feel full. That alone could account for rampant childhood obesity. 

But we are also engineering modern schedules that jettison every opportunity for physical activity, even as we learn ever more about the importance of it.

That, too, might account for epidemic obesity all by itself.

We face a perfect storm of ubiquitous, tasty, energy-dense, nutrient-dilute, betcha’ can’t eat just one foods; ever more labor-saving technologies doing everything muscles used to do at work and at play; marketing prowess exploited to talk us and our children into ever more of all the things that propel us toward obesity and chronic disease; hectic schedules; lack of sleep; and constant stress. If we were trying to manufacture an obesity epidemic, I doubt we could do much better. Virtually everything about the modern world that makes it modern is obesigenic.

We can fix this – and it isn’t even complicated. But it will be hard.

That hard work will progress in earnest only when it gets our dedicated attention. For now, we remain rather too distracted by exotic alternatives and fractious bickering.

It’s all a bit like ignoring the guy standing over the body, holding the smoking guy, with a scowl on his face, and “die, scum!’ on his lips and looking for other suspects.

I trust that seems like a bogus endeavor. And so it is we should take a tip from one of Bogey’s great movies - and round up the usual, and obvious suspects. Because in this case, they did it.

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