Let’s move the obesity focus

To wipe out childhood obesity in one generation Michelle Obama will have to focus on the people who can make a difference – parents.
Mariette Ulrich | 13 February 2010
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President Obama may be wishing he had never started the tortuous debate on health care reform, but his wife seems to have hit on a winning issue: her Let’s Move! programme  to combat childhood obesity was launched last week at the White House. Few would oppose an initiative to address one of the most distressing health issues of the times.

Obesity is constantly in the news: you can scarcely watch television or read a paper, magazine or website without seeing an obesity-related headline, human interest story, or those ubiquitous ads for diet tips. Moreover, what has long been a Western phenomenon is rapidly going global. A recent cover story for Readers’ Digest (Canadian edition) declares, on the authority of the World Health Organization, that the world has reached a disturbing “tipping point”: for the first time in history, more people on this planet are dying from overeating than of starvation.

The issue of childhood obesity brings a heightened sense of alarm to parent and non-parent alike. Society rightly shares a collective sense of urgency and protectiveness towards its young—except, for some odd reason, in the pre-birth stage of life, but that is a conundrum for another day. The fact is that our children are getting fatter: the childhood obesity rate tripled in the United States between 1980-1999, with an alarming ten per cent of babies classified as obese. Numerous studies have investigated the causes and what can be done about it.

The First Lady has some good ideas: get kids moving, cut out the junk food and get them interested in eating fresh, nourishing food -- last year she planted a vegetable garden at the White House with the help of some youngsters. She has even talked about “engaging families and communities” in the Let’s Move drive.

This last initiative is key: more than for any other reason, children are overweight because the adults who care for them are themselves overweight and/or unmotivated to make changes. There is a dual moral and parenting dimension to this issue that has been virtually ignored by politicians and the media.

Ironically, around the time that President Obama was signing the executive order setting up the Let’s Move task force, an important study was published showing that what parents do in the home is critical in preventing obesity. Ohio State University researchers found that four-year-olds who ate dinner with their siblings and parents, got adequate sleep and had their TV viewing rationed were almost 40 per cent less likely to be obese than those from less disciplined households. And who would be responsible for those routines? Parents. Mom and dad.

Unfortunately, “parents” did not seem to be highlighted at the White House launch. The report I read stated: “First Lady Michelle Obama teamed up with athletes, farmers, doctors and the media Tuesday to confront the childhood obesity 'epidemic…” The same kind of oversight sees the various discussions about childhood obesity constantly sidetracked into campaigns against “Big Mac”, or calls for punitive taxes on soft drinks and snack foods. Obesity is not caused by cheeseburgers, television, video games, sugar in chocolate milk, or candy vending machines in schools. It results from behavioural choices made by human beings. For the most part, childhood obesity is caused by a series of poor parenting choices. As a general rule, physically fit, healthy, active, and involved parents do not raise passive, morbidly obese children.

If a government-funded task force is required –and some would be willing to debate that point—it should be targeting parents first and foremost. It would be a programme that takes the parental role seriously and gives back to mom and dad the responsibility removed from them by decades of school interventions and media propaganda. For the social groups most affected it will not be easy. For one thing, high divorce rates and our easy acceptance of single parenthood have resulted in large numbers of working poor or welfare-dependent parents who find it very difficult to cope with the daily demands of child rearing.

Dr. Mark Tremblay, who participated in a recent Canadian study on obesity, suggests that a lack of government initiatives is not the problem. He says, “The facilities and programs are there, we’ve provided it, we’ve built it and they still don’t come. A large percentage of the population is just not buying into it.” A seminal question is: why?

Behind the obesity epidemic is a much larger problem of unmotivated parents, many of whom are also overweight. This is the real challenge for Michelle Obama. If she and her task force could persuade even a fraction of parents to change their lifestyles and to adopt just three routines with their young children -- family dinners, proper sleep, rationed TV -- they would make a permanent difference. Without reaching and motivating parents, the First Lady’s ambitious –and laudable-- goal of eliminating childhood obesity in one generation will remain no more than wishful thinking.

Mariette Ulrich is a Canadian columnist, freelance writer and blogger.

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