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Is The Childhood Obesity Crisis A Big Fat Red Herring?

by Golda Poretsky, H.H.C. on January 2, 2014

Image from the Atlanta, GA anti-childhood-obesity campaign

Image from the Atlanta, GA anti-childhood-obesity campaign

I grew up in Freeport, New York, a suburb of New York City on the south shore of Long Island. For decades, Freeport has been a very diverse community, with mostly lower middle class, working class, and poor people.

Rather than pay the dollar or so to the cafeteria lunch lady, many of my elementary school classmates flashed cards that showed that they were eligible for reduced or free lunch.

Sometimes I would overhear the “free lunch” kids talking about how lunch was their first meal that day. Even though I was often on some form of a diet, my stomach turned at the idea of skipping breakfast, especially when I was seven or eight years old.

Now, someone who has no knowledge of metabolism (not you, dear reader) might think that all the kids getting free lunch back at my elementary school cafeteria were skinny.

Not so at all.

Some might have been classified as “obese” or at least “overweight” by today’s standards.

And maybe this doesn’t quite surprise you.

After all, all you need to do is turn on the TV, look at a newspaper or magazine, or stare briefly at the Internet, and you will hear about the “childhood obesity crisis.”

Kids are, allegedly, getting fatter.

According to the CDC, “Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years.” More than one-third of children and adolescents are overweight and obese, they say.

We as a country have fixated on this alleged crisis even though (a) every attempt to make fat kids thin has failed, (b) even the NIH says that focusing on weight is bad for kids because it increases stigma and shaming, (c) not a single study shows that weight loss works for more than 5% of people, and, (d) by the way, despite fears about obesity, U.S. life expectancy continues to rise.

So why are people continuing to fixate on childhood obesity?

I think maybe because it’s obscuring a much bigger, scarier issue.

Let’s Take a Look at Childhood Poverty

Just so we’re on the same page, the reasons for undernourished kids – like the ones in my school cafeteria line of yore – being fatter include: (a) genetics, (b) slowed metabolism and increased fat storage due to lack of calories and nutrition, and/or (c) eating more calorie-dense, nutrient deficient, cheaper food.

There’s somewhat of a relationship between the “childhood obesity crisis” and childhood poverty, and I think we’re focusing on the wrong supposed problem.

While childhood obesity has apparently declined slightly in recent years, one thing that hasn’t declined is childhood poverty.

Among developed nations, the U.S. ranks second to last in childhood poverty.

Nearly a quarter (22.6%) of American children live below the poverty line, with a 4.5% increase in childhood poverty since 2007.

Break these numbers down further and the picture is even bleaker for African-American and Latino children, with more than a third of those children living below the poverty line.

And, of course, this doesn’t include children whose families live at or near the poverty line who are also struggling.

Our government’s way of handling this actual crisis of childhood poverty has been to cut food stamps and other resources for poor children.

Childhood poverty has serious and clear negative effects.

Poor children risk and experience homelessness, lack of food, lack of adequate healthcare, lack of adequate childcare, unsafe neighborhoods and more.

They live with the constant stress and fear that their basic needs won’t be met.

They have more difficulty concentrating in school and are more at risk for dropping out early, which then affects any opportunities for advancement as they get older.

So childhood poverty is increasing, while childhood obesity has leveled out and, most importantly, is really a non-issue (good food and safe, fun exercise should be available and important for all kids, not just fat ones).

It’s Time to Reassess Our Societal Goals and Values

First Lady Michelle Obama has stated that one of the goals of her “Let’s Move” campaign is to “eliminate this problem of childhood obesity in a generation.”

Imagine if she had said that one of her goals was to “eliminate childhood poverty and malnutrition in a generation.” Imagine if she made this much more pressing issue a priority.

Obesity is a “sexy” issue only because it’s easy.

It’s easy to vilify and stereotype people, including children, based upon how they look. It’s easy to stigmatize a group, say they’re bad, they have bad habits, they need to be changed, they need to look different.

Poverty is a much scarier problem and a much bigger, more endemic one.

Children are living in poverty because of over thirty years of policies that have increased income disparity to such a degree that the middle class is nearly gone.

Instead, we have a wealthy 1% and an increasingly poor 99%, with more and more people (including working people) relying on government benefits to survive.

What we end up with, as a result, are increasing numbers of families who are barely surviving, with children who are barely surviving.

The absolute least of our issues as a society is “obesity.”

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Obesity is just a red herring. Vilifying obesity has become a way to ignore the reality of the suffering of millions of people.

When liberals talk about fat as a problem of individuals not taking care of themselves and not understanding nutrition, they have essentially co-opted the “personal responsibility” lingo of conservatives. They have bought  and eaten the red herring (albeit wild-caught and delicately grilled).

It’s time to refocus on the real problems and real suffering of our nation’s children, whether they happen to be fat or not.

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Golda is a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. To learn more about Golda and her work, click here.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Catherine Lynn Perry January 23, 2014 at 2:55 pm

There is no doubt that poverty is at the foundation of much of the shakiness of our systems today. What I think is that this statement about eliminating childhood obesity is the old blame-the-victim philosophy. Eat healthy food, they tell us. Stay away from fat and sugar, they tell us. Don’t eat processed foods, they tell us. A better idea to me is to incent companies to make healthy food instead of subsidizing them to continue making junk, I wonder how much of an issue this would be for children and adults alike. Fast, widely available, drive-thru healthy options. Starbucks is actually doing some good work in this area with their kale-Caesar salad and cut fruit options. Hard to compete financially with the dollar tacos at Jack in the Box.

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@WeightDebate January 20, 2014 at 11:03 am

“Is the childhood #obesity crisis a red herring?” It’s all about the money. Always. @bodylovewellnes http://t.co/IfkhqWM2We #kidshealth

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myswtghst (@myswtghst) January 13, 2014 at 11:54 am

Is The Childhood Obesity Crisis A Big Fat Red Herring? http://t.co/KT4NDgCLG3

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Dayna_With_A_Y (@DJ_Crochet) January 12, 2014 at 10:25 pm

RT @RadicalBodyLove: “There’s somewhat of a relationship between the ‘childhood obesity crisis’ and childhood poverty, and I think… http:…

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@RadicalBodyLove January 12, 2014 at 9:26 pm

“There’s somewhat of a relationship between the ‘childhood obesity crisis’ and childhood poverty, and I think… http://t.co/DipSb2MSKG

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Susan January 11, 2014 at 3:48 pm

The attitude that this administration has had about poverty, hunger, and obesity has been worse than a red herring, it has been a crock of ……. There is a problem with obesity in America, but there is also a huge problem with hunger in America. There are many, many children that do not have enough, if anything to eat.

Acknowledging such hunger in this country is an admission by the Powers that Be that we are slipping down from being a first world nation toward a nation that has people (many are children) who don’t have enough to eat. Yes, the First Lady looks so cute in her short sleeve outfits in the food gardens that have been planted at the White House. What perfect photo ops, her and her girls in the garden harvesting vegetables. Has this woman ever done any real work in any kind of garden (herself) not the gardeners and chefs. Has she ever seen how much work, time, and money are needed to create a vegetable garden that is successful. And even when you have the correct soil and plants, you are always at the mercy of the weather.

She “plays” at vegetable gardening and acts like that would be a feasible solution to both obesity and hunger. Is she funding garden plants, seeds, equipment, acreage, and security for these garden plots to be created in our cities and towns? Not to mention the education needed about how to plant and care for the various plants.

It puts the United States and the current administration in a different light to present our problem as Childhood Obesity, than it does to present our problem as Childhood Hunger and Poverty. The First Lady enjoys the spotlight, but she prefers it to have the rosy glow of make believe.

Childhood obesity is blamed on the children, and families just having too much, too easy in “our land of plenty”. The Powers That Be prefer to downplay the numbers of children who are hungry and don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Better to be the leaders of a land of plenty, than a country where people are on the verge of starving. They are going to do their best to just not talk about starvation in America.

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Annabel Adams (@FeedMeImCranky1) January 3, 2014 at 4:24 am

Is The Childhood Obesity Crisis A Big Fat Red Herring? http://t.co/RqHnYNQ5Ie via @bodylovewellnes

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Naomi January 2, 2014 at 10:22 pm

I linked to your post on my blog. You really hit the nail on the head. Here is the link to my post, if you’re interested. http://deaderpoet.blogspot.com/2014/01/post-link-really-of-controversy-3.html

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Mike S. January 2, 2014 at 11:04 am

It’s a shame that politics are so divisive, because I fear some of what you wrote may alienate some of your audience.

But I happen to agree completely on all points. Between President Johnson’s “Great Society” and today, the poor have been vilified even as more and more of us become poor. That’s a real problem that even the Democrats aren’t trying hard enough to address, unlike the distraction of the childhood obesity epidemic.

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@hillarygayle January 2, 2014 at 10:22 am

RT @bodylovewellnes: {New} Is The Childhood Obesity Crisis A Big Fat Red Herring? http://t.co/O0GDhrptAm #children #childrenandfat #fatpoli…

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