Why Kids Are Getting Fat
The United States of Obesity
The new data confirm that obesity rates in children are rising across gender lines, across the country, and across age, race, and educational levels.
"Part of the frustration for those of us who work in the field is 'Why don't Americans perceive this problem?'" says James Hill, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, in Denver. "If these trends continue, within a few generations every American will be overweight."
Could it really happen? Not literally, acknowledges Hill: Some people will always be genetically predisposed to thinness, others to being overweight. Brigante's husband, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, for example, have all struggled with their weight.
But it isn't our genes that have suddenly changed in a single generation. What has changed is our society. It has become easier than ever to overeat, at any time, whether you're sitting in a stroller or toddling through the mall. Snacks not only are packaged in bigger sizes but also pack more calories per serving than 20 years ago, find University of North Carolina researchers. More and more time-stressed families eat out -- for as many as 40 percent of meals -- and restaurant portion sizes have grown as well. "Supersizing" fast-food meals adds hundreds of calories.
School-age children have more than doubled their daily consumption of soft drinks and fruit beverages in the past two decades. Even pure fruit juice has come under scrutiny: The newest guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urge parents of 1- to 6-year-olds to limit daily consumption of fruit juice to four to six ounces. Tooth decay is one concern, but so is the contribution to the childhood-obesity epidemic.
For slightly older kids, soft drinks can be a weight trap. In a recent two-year study of middle school children, those who had at least one sugar-sweetened soft drink a day -- soda, sweetened fruit drinks, lemonade, sweetened ice tea -- were most likely to be overweight. "Soft drinks should be allowed only as a rare treat," advises David Ludwig, M.D., director of the Obesity Program at Children's Hospital in Boston. "They do not provide optimal nutrition for children, and our research shows that they can contribute to the development of obesity." Be flexible, he says. "Allow a cup or so only on special occasions so that your child understands that soft drinks are a once-in-a-while treat."
Another problem: In a drive to cut dietary fat, many parents "have simply substituted refined carbohydrates and concentrated sugars," notes Dr. Ludwig. "When that means a child's diet is full of white bread and sugared breakfast cereal, that's not doing him any favors." And kids don't have to be visibly gorging themselves to develop a problem. If a child consumes an extra 100 calories a day -- a small bag of fries or a can of soda -- he can put on 10 extra pounds in a year.