Two Children on the Beach

Perilous Politics Pretending to “Tackle” Childhood Obesity

Michelle Obama, Let's Move

Photo by Amanda Bossard/Medill News Service

Twelve years ago, a very popular First Lady of the United States launched an ambitious campaign to solve the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation. Two papers in Pediatrics yesterday suggest to us that those efforts did not yield the promised solution. In sum, these data tell us that after Let’s Move! began, the incidence of childhood obesity was higher, occurred at younger ages, and was more severe than ever before. The politics of pretending to “tackle” childhood obesity are perilous because obesity doesn’t yield to glib sloganeering and photo ops.

Widening Disparities

As disappointing as anything is the finding that disparities in obesity are widening. Incidence of new obesity cases among Black children in primary school increased by 29 percent. Children from the most socially and economically disadvantaged households experienced a 15 percent higher incidence in primary school.

So it would seem that if policies are doing anything to restrain the growth of obesity, they are only serving children who enjoy economic and social privilege. They are clearly not working so well for Black children and other disadvantaged groups.

Serious Implications for Future Health

The peril of policies pretending to address childhood obesity is more than political. It will have profound health effects for many years to come. That’s because an earlier onset of obesity, with more severe obesity will mean an even higher risk of severe obesity in adulthood. Longer duration of obesity brings more risk of type 2 diabetes and a whole host of other complications.

We’ve said it before. The script for dealing with childhood obesity is failing. Simply advising children and families that they have obesity and relying on behavior change to fix the problem is not working and is not likely to  work. Not ever.

Let’s Stop Pretending

This is not simply a behavioral problem. Food systems are promoting obesity, but they are not doing it by themselves. We have a physical and tech environment that makes everyone less active by default. Stress and distress have risen to levels that are causing a mental health crisis for young people. We have more exposure to drugs and chemicals that disrupt our endocrine systems and thus cause weight gain.

Pretending that childhood obesity is a simple problem of bad behavior totally misleads the public. It leads us away from finding better solutions that will bring us better health. Instead of sloganeering, we need leadership from public health that brings objectivity and curiosity to seek more complete and effective approaches. Above all, we need to do a better job of providing effective care for the growing number of young persons who are living with severe obesity.

Click here and here for the two new studies in Pediatrics.

Two Children on the Beach, painting by Theophrastos Triantafyllidis / WikiArt

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July 6, 2022