Spinning Distraction

Blame, Diversions, and Ten Times More Childhood Obesity

Blame and diversions are no substitute for dealing with the complex reality of a rising tide of childhood obesity. In a thoughtful essay, Sara Kirk points to blame and shame  as a tool for diverting public attention away from finding real solutions.

A Ten-Fold Increase Since 1975

For the last 40 years, we’ve been throwing simplistic solutions at this complex problem. And all the while, it’s grown relentlessly. In The Lancet, the NCD Risk Factor Collaboration published the most detailed accounting yet. Worldwide, only 11 million children had obesity. By 2016, that number had grown to 124 million.

No Real Surprises

Kirk describes the facts of a situation that should not surprise any of us. As the world has grown wealthier, the supply of food with lots of calories and rather poor nutrition has grown abundant. And at the same time, we’ve packed people into cities where human-powered movement is difficult and dangerous.

This dynamic has played itself out in the developed world and childhood obesity rates may well be reaching their limits. But it’s progressing rapidly into the developing world and fueling more rapid growth in obesity rates in those countries.

On top of that, Kirk points out that the built environment leaves families to look toward organized sports as a tepid substitute for free play. More drive time means more convenient fast foods gobbled down on the way to programmed physical activity, she says. In this way, time pressure can force some families into unhealthy tradeoffs.

The Diversion of Blame and Shame

Balance What Your Eat, Drink, and Do

In the popular imagination, the world is suffering from a sudden crisis of personal responsibility. Industry messaging – subtle or not – points to personal choices about food and physical activity. “Balance what you eat, drink, and do,” it says. Meanwhile, industry employs marketing strategies that nudge both children and adults to consume ever more of its food and beverage products.

It’s a business model that prioritizes consumption over health.

Public health brings its share of diversions to the table. Narrow campaigns to drive certain classes of food and beverages into oblivion invite a game of whack-a-mole. New problem foods and drinks replace the old ones before we know what hits us.

And then, we have misguided anti-obesity campaigns. With stigmatizing imagery and catastrophic language, they add to the stigma that people with obesity already face. Amping up the problem without providing solutions makes the problem worse. If we never see another headless belly, it will be too soon.

We need more complete solutions, not more scapegoats. We need thoughtful action, guided by evidence and objective assessments.

For Kirk’s commentary, click here. Her research on the tension between healthy meals and sports is here, while the Lancet report is here.

Spinning Distraction, photograph © Robert Couse-Baker / flickr

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October 20, 2017

2 Responses to “Blame, Diversions, and Ten Times More Childhood Obesity”

  1. October 20, 2017 at 10:13 am, John DiTraglia said:

    The “no real surprise” section sounds like definitive explanation. Circumstantial evidence is not necessarily causal evidence.

    • October 20, 2017 at 11:42 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, John. You have a point. We do not definitively know which changes in the food supply and our physical environment are making the greatest contributions to excess obesity. However, it’s pretty clear that changes in those factors are contributing.