Greater social effort needed to combat child obesity

As child obesity increases, pediatric surgeons in the United States are faced with a new predicament — the lowering age of weight-loss surgery recipients.

According to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, one of many concerns with pediatric weight-loss surgeries is that there is no data available on how the abrupt change in nutrition could affect long-term brain development and sexual maturation.

Despite possible side effects, the demand from families to operate on younger children is increasing. This trend is consistent with the view that child obesity poses a great health risk to our society. According to the American Heart Association, one-third of American teenagers today are overweight or obese. If this trend continues, 18 percent of U.S. health expenditures will be spent on treating child obesity by 2030.


Some studies link poor parenting to child obesity. According to a University of Illinois study, easily distressed parents who are dismissive of their children’s emotions are more likely to resort to comfort feeding. They are also less likely to organize family mealtimes that promote a healthier diet.

However, only blaming parents will not solve the impending crisis. Child obesity is a complex social problem, and poor parenting is not solely accountable for the epidemic. A November 2013 Gallup poll shows that lower-income families have the highest rate of obesity. This phenomenon is mainly due to socioeconomic factors. According to the Food Research and Action Center, poor neighborhoods often lack access to physical activity resources and healthy, affordable foods. Moreover, many parents from low-income families cannot afford to enroll their children in organized sports.

Even for middle-income families, the situation is tough. We live in a culture where fast food chains, sugary sodas and high-calorie snacks compete for children’s appetites. Parents can enforce healthy eating habits at home, but they have no control over what their teenage children eat when they are with their peers at the mall or at school.

For such reasons, it is difficult to treat teenage obesity with the focus only on parental efforts. Many parents try to encourage healthy habits, but some are forced to choose surgical measures as a last resort to relieve their children from various consequences of high-level obesity, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, liver damage and sleep disorders.

It takes an entire society, not just a family, to tackle obesity among American teenagers. Poor parenting is a contributing factor to child obesity, but society risks oversimplifying the issue if all the blame is put on parents. Large-scale social changes are necessary for long-term improvement. Although First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign has made some positive impact, it is time to start a bigger move to fight child obesity.

 A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 26 print edition. Kenny Kyunghoon Lee is a contributing columnist. Email him at [email protected]



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