Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The kids aren't alright

Date: September 13
Mileage: 23.8
September mileage: 108

Right now I work as a wire editor, which basically means I have my pick of dozens of national and world news articles to run in our local paper. Recently, one of my coworkers accused me of running "too many fat-kid stories." I can't help if all the published scientists are so single-mindedly focused on obesity (well, that and global warming.) I think these reports are justified. They scare me, too.

The latest study is saying that one in five children younger than 18 will be obese by 2010. Not pudgy. Not slightly overweight. Obese. It makes me wonder where these kids find the time to put on all this weight. You can't tell me that 20 percent of the youth population is genetically predisposed.

I guess what I don't understand is exactly when it got so bad. I come from "Generation Y," albeit the very, very front edge of it. But we had video games and Carl's Jr. and 7,578.2 satellite channels. We ate Doritos and Dr. Pepper for lunch and zoned out in front of the computer for hours (back in the days when texting was still called "chatting.") Now that I've joined the line of cane-waving, "back-in-my-day" generations, I'm just trying to make sense of the great health epidemic of our time, and why it seems to be hitting the youngest generation (Generation Z? Generation iPod?) so hard.

When I was a senior in high school, I wrote an opinion column for my school newspaper decrying exercise as an egomaniacle waste of time. Teenagers don't need to "exercise," I reasoned, because a teenager's life is exercise. They participate in school sports. They thrash around for hours at rock shows. The financially strapped among them (of which I was one) have to walk everywhere (because, when I was 17, it was not cool to ride a bike.) "Kids only exercise," I wrote, "because they're vain and think a few situps are going to make them look like Gwen Stefani." Yup. I had it all figured out.

I would have been royally outraged if the government tried to take away my Dr. Pepper machine. I would have laughed at efforts to slim down school lunch (we wouldn't even eat the greasy junk they served.) But, most of all, I didn't want someone telling me to spend precious hours of youth lifting weights or running on a hamster wheel, when there was a world of real fun right in front of me. It made so much sense then. What happened?

The thought of what children must be doing that causes them to grow so large almost scares me more than the public health implications. Could they really be spending that much more time staring mindlessly at screens, downing an endless supply of processed food until they're too numb and stuffed to think? That's bleak. It's one thing to eat yourself into an early grave. It's another to waste away in a soulless existence.

I know that obesity is a complicated issue, and I believe it's not always a matter of lifestyle choices. Some children are genetically predisposed. Others struggle with larger issues such as poverty and parental indifference, issues that often accompany unhealthy lifestyles. But how can we help the rest? Those overwhelmed with such rapt indifference that they let the world go by through their television monitors and turn to food for the shallow sparks of joy food can provide? If only somehow we could make biking cool. That, I have faith, would solve everything.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly, Jill. I update a daily e-zine each morning and it seems every day the health stories are tied to obesity. I'm a good bit older than you, we didn't have the Internet when I was growing up, and Atari was pretty simple and not in every home. I remember coming home from school and having to change into my "play" clothes, as we immediately went outside until it was time to come in for dinner/homework. We played soccer on our lawn, went swimming, climbed trees and built forts. My sister and I were allowed to share one of those little half-can sodas on special occasions. I'm about to write an opinion piece on the topic of youth inactivity because it's become an "epidemic". Tell your co-worker you don't write the stories, you just have to go along with the topics of the time. This is a hot one.

  2. Good thoughts.

    Our son is right on the edge of being considered "overweight".

    None of this is due to his eating habits (he isn't a big eater), he was as thin as a rail until last year when his meds were changed around.

    I was a fat kid and I grew out of it, so it's not all hopeless:-)

  3. You mentioned a lot of significant factors - computers, television, processed food. But I think you missed two important, interconnected factors - suburban sprawl and the car culture.

    When I was a kid, I walked to school and rode my bike to little league practices and games and to friends' houses. Now, roads are clogged with traffic, making them unsafe for kids to cross on foot or on bike. They're bused to school and chauffered by their parents everywhere else. And grown-ups (especially developers and policy-makers) are to blame, not the kids themselves.

  4. Barring genetically caused problems, for most everyone else it's a simple matter of calories in versus calories out.

    Obviously a sedentary upbringing is one culprit, but when combined with a diet rich in fast foods, which tend to be high in saturated fat, plus eating large portions, all of those are going to be big contributing factors to being overweight.

    Another factor might be the huge increase in high sugar beverages which children are allowed to gulp down continously. And not just at home but at school as well. Those drinks are loaded with sugar and calories, which if not burned get stored as fat. Pretty simple.

    I don't recall continously drinking all those calorie-laden drinks when I was growing up. And going out to eat was a treat. Now it seems far too many parents buy processed foods and/or buy fast food to feed their family. We ate at home a lot more often, and never were the meals "popped in the microwave" - we didn't have a microwave!

    The bigger problem for these kids will be the increased incidence in type II diabetes.

    Parents are aware of these risks. My guess is most of them are far too careless to do anything about it. Plus they set bad examples for their children when they too lead a sedentary lifestyle.

  5. I have a new four-letter word for you HFCS= High fructose corn syrup. I believe it is not all about how much kids eat now-a-days, but what they eat. Both parents and children are "on the go" with their schedules overextended. Eating in many ways falls by the wayside as something simply to get done so you don't die on the way to soccer, or ballet, or piano, or the movies. The easy, "on the go"-type foods are prepackaged and chock full of HCFS (among other things). The human body does not know how to process this, nor does it have the proper response to tell you to stop eating. You can get sugar sick because your body says STOP, but you do not get HFCS sick. The metabolism doesn't work like that, but it DOES work to put those calories right into fat.

    I hope I can do enough to help my 7 yo. His mother feeds him premade freezer French Toast sticks, I cut up fresh italian bread, scramble and egg and make actual french toast. It's about what you put into your body and your childrens body.

    Thankfully he has me to help inform him of food choices...AND take him for the frequent bike rides he begs for!

  6. What happened to climbing trees, riding bikes, and chasing each other around the yard as kids? Lots of kids live in our neighborhood but it's rare we see them outside. Driving by you'd hardly know a kid lived in a house by looking at the yard. I'm sure our yard is an eye sore with a swing set, trampoline, inflatable pool, trikes and sooters lying around.

    I think part of the problem is it's easier for parents to have the kids inside. At least then they know where they are and they haven't wandered into the street or over to the neighbor's house. The other thing is everybody is so risk adverse any more. If you let your kid climb a tree, they might fall and break a bone. I'd like to know the percentage of kids that break a bone by the time they're 15 versus what it was 20-30 years ago. I really think American's are keeping their kids in too much of a bubble and then they don't know how to function when they get older.

  7. Kids mimic their parents. If you sit on your ass...your kids will too.
    Parents must provide a good example for their children. Exercise with your kids...Turn off the frickin TV, limit time on the computer, don't buy video game consoles, No TV's or computers in their bedrooms, and don't stock the kitchen shelves with junk food. Buy your kids bikes, soccer balls, basketballs, footballs, frisbees, skateboards, skooters and play with them. Take 'em swimming, running, walk the dog...get moving and provide a positive example.

    Many parents don't want to be the bad guy and tell their kids NO!. I love my kids but I'm their parent and it's my responsibility to teach them principles of good living. If your kids are fat and lazy maybe its your fault!

  8. I guess the science fiction writers of previous decades who gave such insight into the human condition and predicted technologies giving us far more time for leisure activities never dreamed we would be using that time to watch other people imitate reality on TV while we stuff our faces with fizzy sugar drinks and carbohydrate fortified fat!

    What a dissapointment this human kind can be. Give us enough rope and see what we can do...


Feedback is always appreciated!