Everyday around the world, millions of children are slowly dying at the hands of those meant to protect them – their parents. It’s a slow and silent abuse, carried out over many years, on view for all to see and even condoned by the society that we live in. But these children aren’t being beaten or bruised. They aren’t being kicked or shaken or burnt, they aren’t even having a hand laid on them.
The crime committed against them? They are being fattened up and killed with kindness, one chicken nugget at a time. While many of these parents fail to realise the part that they play in their own child’s terrible fate, they are quite simply, getting away with murder.
Childhood obesity has become an epidemic, spreading out from the junk food fueled west and into developing countries across the world. According to the World Health Organization, a staggering 22 million children are now estimated to be overweight. And that’s only counting those under the age of 5. With 1 billion adults worldwide now overweight, with at least 300 million of them considered obese, this isn’t exactly a problem that has crept up on us and happened overnight. Far from it, it has taken millions of burgers and many years in the eating.
Obesity is a highly serious and chronic medical condition, associated with a wide range of debilitating and life threatening conditions. These include sleep problems, early puberty, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, skin infections, asthma, respiratory problems, liver disease, high blood pressure, heart disease and even cancer. It can also have a severe physiological impact on those affected, particularly children. From playground taunting and teasing to vicious bullying and harassment, obesity can lead to such intense levels of discrimination that it can eventually dictate the job that you have and the life that you may lead.
Despite popular misconception, obesity is not the same as just being overweight, it is when you have too much body fat for your height and age, and is defined by many doctors as being 20% above what your normal weight should be. It can be measured by calculating your BMI (Body Mass Index).
Children all grow at very different rates, so as a parent it can be hard to know what is normal ‘baby fat’ and what is a health crisis in the making. Chubby little legs indicate a healthy and well fed baby, and lets face it, this is probably the only time in your life when having folds of fat around your knees will be considered cute. But if your child is overweight by the time they go to kindergarten, then according to a Harvard Study Team, unless you help them to lose their ‘baby fat’ as they grow, it is likely that they will stay that way and continue to gain an unhealthy amount of weight as they get older.
Ignorance in understanding the facts have up until now perhaps been the biggest hurdle in overcoming childhood obesity, but with a recent wave of media attention and TV programmes highlighting the issues, ignorance is no longer an acceptable excuse. Parents who act dumb or worse still don’t act at all, should, in my opinion, be taken out, strung up and pelted with eggs at dawn. The cause of childhood obesity is NOT rocket science and it is not, as many like to claim, down to having a snail slow metabolism or being ‘big boned’.
Obesity, in both children and adults, is down to consuming more sugar, fat and calories than your body needs and then not doing enough physical exercise to burn them all off.
Genetics do play a part, but is this down more to inherited biology or from learning bad habits? Studies have shown that while 50% of children with obese mothers and 40.1% with obese fathers do go on to become either overweight or obese themselves, a high percentage of parents with a normal body weight also have children facing the same problem.
So if biology is partly to blame, is it inheriting a gene that makes a child gain weight simply by looking at a doughnut, or is it more to do with exposing and subjecting a child to their parent’s own unhealthy eating pattern and lifestyle?
Other behavioural factors have also been linked to childhood obesity, such as stress, boredom, sadness, anxiety, low self esteem and depression. Any of these, as we all know can trigger off a pattern of comfort and binge eating, which would in turn create a very vicious and potentially unbreakable circle. A lack of sleep may also be to blame, with a Harvard study carried out this year showing that for those children who do not get enough sleep, as well as having a negative impact on their emotional and social welfare and their performance in school, they also may have an increased risk of being overweight.
Childhood obesity in many ways can also be blamed on the technological, social, economic and environmental changes that have taken place in our world. A world where people are now too busy to eat anything off a plate. Where young girls would rather be drinking themselves under the table than cooking food to eat off it. Where children think a Playstation counts as exercise and that the Golden Arches are one of the natural wonders of the world.
I think childhood obesity can also be blamed in part on Ray Croc, one of the men initially responsible for bringing junk food to the masses.
Without his ‘vision’ of fueling the world on burgers and fries, there might not be 31,000 McDonald’s restaurants in 119 countries, serving more than 47 million people every day. Many of these restaurants are deliberately being built within walking distance of schools, targeting those who are not only more susceptible to the charms of the marketing ads but also those who are most at risk from the long term effects of eating too much of this type of food.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not on a personal crusade against Ronald and his chicken nuggets, or even those who eat them. Jamie Oliver has already gone down that particular path in 2006 and successfully achieved, along with the National Heart Forum, a ban in the UK on advertising unhealthy food products during children’s TV programmes.
What I personally do have an issue with is firstly that McDonalds target their trans fat and salt laden Happy Meals at children aged 3-9, and then make sure that they double or triple their sales by marketing them with promotional movie tie-in toys – none of which actually do anything or even last past the back seat of the car.
A company finally fighting back against this trend is Disney. For the last 10 years they have filled the Happy Meal boxes with little Nemos, Mr. Incredibles and 101 Dalmatians. But as they now wish to distance themselves with fast food and its links to the epidemic of childhood obesity, they have cut their ties with the chain.
Of course as they say, you can lead a person to the counter but you can’t make them eat a burger.
So yes, although companies make a fortune supplying the food, it is the parents who are letting their offspring gorge themselves silly. It is parents who take their children to fast food restaurants for their Sunday lunch, for their birthday parties and as a reward for doing well at school (myself included, slap on the hand and I won’t do it again).
There is photo of a boy at McDonalds doing the rounds on the Internet, one which I am sure McDonalds doesn’t appreciate, but this single image highlights exactly what the problem is.
It’s not that people eat junk food some of the time, it’s that some people let their children eat junk food all of the time.
The good news is that finally, after 25 years, the levels of climbing obesity rates amongst children are starting to stall – according to the CDC and based on survey data gathered from 1999 to 2006 and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
So the damage caused to children by this epidemic can be stopped, prevented and even reversed. If their parents help them to live a healthier life, this generation could be the one that puts an end to this problem and saves future generations from facing the same fight.
Childhood Obesity is not a Fat v Thin debate.
It is not about pointing the finger or casting blame. It is not about wearing the right dress size, being popular or even fitting in. It is simply about keeping your child healthy and giving them the best possible start to their life.
Whatever lifestyle an adult chooses to lead and the medical consequences that may come about because of it, are solely down to that individual. But a child’s diet and physical well being are an entirely different matter and are, I think, the responsibility of society as a whole. Children need to be taught what is healthy and what is not. They need to be taught to treat exercise as a way of life, and not something that stands between them and their TV schedule. They need to be taught that just because they are offered an upsize on every meal, it doesn’t make it a bargain that they can’t refuse.
Parents need to learn when to say “No” and how to enforce some serious tough love in the kitchen. It is knowing how much your child actually needs to eat and then being strong enough to tell your pleading little angel to put down that third muffin and step away from the sweetie jar. You will never starve your child with such measures, but if you keep on letting them dictate their own menu, you may as well just go out and buy a goose, pump food down its throat and sit back to wait for the Foie gras.
To slowly starve a child to death is a crime, a crime punishable with a jail sentence. So surely logic would say that to feed your child to an early grave is no different and therefore deserves to be treated the same way.
Another article I have written about obesity can be found here.