This is why child obesity rates have soared

October 18, 2017 by Sara Fl Kirk, The Conversation
Over 90 per cent of food and beverage product ads viewed by children and youth online are for unhealthy food products. Credit: Shutterstock

New data on almost 13 million people, from 200 countries around the world, points to a tenfold increase in rates of obesity among children and adolescents over the last four decades. This is the largest study of its kind and it paints a startling and depressing picture of a world that is getting fatter.

The research also reveals that the rise in child and adolescent in high income countries is beginning to slow down. And that in low and —especially in Asia —it is accelerating.

These findings should not be a surprise to anyone. Obesity is an issue with no geographical, ethnicity, age or gender boundaries. Rather, obesity is the inevitable consequence of an "obesogenic" environment that we have constructed for ourselves. If we surround children with foods that are high in fat and sugar and restrict their opportunities to run around, they are at risk of developing obesity.

Obesity is a visible sign that all is not well with the world and it is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, the burden of chronic diseases is growing and nobody is immune.

Not enough play, too much junk food

The problem is that we have restructured our environment to be the exact opposite of what we need to maintain our energy balance.

On one side of the equation, our is dominated by energy dense, nutrient poor foods that are available 24 hours a day. In the United States alone, companies spend $1.79 billion annually to market unhealthy food to children, compared with only $280 million on healthy foods. In Canada over 90 per cent of food and beverage product ads viewed by children and youth online are for products.

On the other side of the energy balance equation, our towns and cities have been designed to support motorized transportation, instead of human-powered movement through walking or cycling. This creates a dependency on cars that further impacts individual physical activity.

More than 1.2 million people die on the world's roads every year, with 90 per cent of deaths occurring in low or middle-income countries. The result is that fewer people walk or cycle. Many parents are concerned about the safety of their children, meaning that fewer children engage in spontaneous activity or experience the health and development benefits of free play outdoors.

Having engineered regular bouts of physical activity out of our children's lives, we then try to squash it back in through organized sport. But this creates additional challenges for families, as I have discovered in research conducted in collaboration with colleagues at Dalhousie and Acadia University. In this study, parents noted how fitting organized activities into their lives led to a reliance on foods eaten outside the home.

So we have one healthy behaviour — —competing with, and in some cases displacing, another—healthy nutrition. This takes us right back to the energy-in side of the energy balance equation.

Industry thrives on blaming individuals

Perhaps most shocking is how unwilling we are as a society to do anything to address these unhealthy environments that have shaped our behaviour over the last few decades. We seem to find it far easier to point the finger of blame at individuals for making poor choices, than to address the complex web of factors that contribute to obesity worldwide.

There is a pervasive narrative of personal responsibility for obesity, particularly among the general population. This suggests that people gain weight because they cannot control themselves, because they are weak or morally flawed or because they choose to eat unhealthy foods when other healthy options are available.

This narrative is aggressively promoted by those with most to lose from a system-wide approach to obesity prevention, one that would involve regulatory measures—such as bans on marketing to children or taxes on unhealthy products. The food, beverage, car and fossil fuel industries are vocally opposed to regulation that might impact their profits. This parallels the strategies of the tobacco industry, which for decades undermined science on the relationship between smoking and cancer.

Children are eating more unhealthy foods and exercising less as a simple result of the obesogenic environment they live in. Credit: Shutterstock
Obesity is not a character flaw

Busting this myth of means examining our own assumptions that obesity is a lifestyle issue, and challenging political ideologies that are committed to the dominance of the free market even as it undermines health.

It requires us to think critically about how our towns and cities are designed, how we regulate our food supply and the role of food manufacturers and retailers in making the decisions that impact our health and well-being.

Obesity is not a character flaw. It is a normal response to an abnormal environment. When unhealthy behaviours are the default, as they are within our modern, health-disrupting environment, then healthy behaviours become abnormal. We all need to eat more healthily and be more physically active, regardless of body weight or shape.

We also need leadership, political will and a restructuring of our environments to better support health. Not everyone has the time or financial resources to eat healthily, and it should not be up to individuals to navigate through this health-disrupting environment when profits are being made that negatively impact health.

We need collective action

None of this is new—even the Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460 - 377 BC) is credited with saying: "If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health."

But a sense of urgency among some politicians is finally beginning to emerge, particularly when it comes to protecting our children from unhealthy food and drink advertising. Last month, Canada's Senate passed Bill S-228, the Child Health Protection Act, which seeks to prohibit the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children under the age of 17. This is an important step that puts the health and well-being of our ahead of company profits.

There can be no dispute that everyone has a right to good health. But if we want to improve the lives of everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, wherever they live in the world, then we must, as a society, commit to making healthy choices easier for everyone to adopt.

This requires collective action —are you up for the challenge?

Explore further: Is the food industry conspiring to make you fat?

Related Stories

Is the food industry conspiring to make you fat?

August 10, 2017
The scent of baked goods wafts towards you as the supermarket doors glide open. Your stomach rumbles and your mouth waters at the sight and smell of so much food.

Opinion: Junk food ads aimed at children should be banned

October 25, 2016
"The World Medical Association have called for junk food advertising to be banned during all TV programmes that are appealing to children. I strongly support this, and believe that the evidence base warrants further regulatory ...

Action needed now on unhealthy marketing to kids

July 15, 2016
Governments and food companies globally are failing to act on protecting children from the marketing of unhealthy food, according to a new study.

Scots' sugar rush driving 'obesity epidemic', figures suggest

August 10, 2017
Scots' daily consumption of 110 tonnes of sugar from cut-price food and drink is fuelling obesity, a University of Stirling academic has warned.

Children make poor dietary choices following unhealthy foods ads

July 5, 2016
Ads for unhealthy foods and beverages high in sugar or salt have an immediate and significant impact on children and lead to harmful diets, according to research from McMaster University.

An issue we can agree on: Parents support policies limiting unhealthy food marketing to children, survey finds

October 30, 2012
Parents are concerned about food marketing and the way it impacts their children's eating habits and would support policies to limit the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, according to a study from Yale's ...

Recommended for you

Large restaurant portions a global problem, study finds

December 12, 2018
A new multi-country study finds that large, high-calorie portion sizes in fast food and full service restaurants is not a problem unique to the United States. An international team of researchers found that 94 percent of ...

A correlation between obesity and income has only developed in the past 30 years

December 11, 2018
It is well known that poorer Americans are more likely to be obese or suffer from diabetes; there is a strong negative correlation between household income and both obesity and diabetes. This negative correlation, however, ...

BMI is a good measure of health after all, new study finds

December 11, 2018
A new study from the University of Bristol supports body mass index (BMI) as a useful tool for assessing obesity and health.

Simple tips to curb overindulgence can help stop pounds piling on at Christmas

December 10, 2018
A study by the University of Birmingham and Loughborough University has shown that regular weighing at home and simple tips to curb excess eating and drinking can prevent people from piling on the pounds at Christmas.

Obesity intervention needed before pregnancy

December 6, 2018
New research from the University of Adelaide's Robinson Research Institute supports the need for dietary and lifestyle interventions before overweight and obese women become pregnant.

Gene that lets you eat as much as you want holds promise against obesity

December 4, 2018
It sounds too good to be true, but a novel approach that might allow you to eat as much food as you want without gaining weight could be a reality in the near future.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.