The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 2, 2014

Our View: Who's to blame for obesity? We are

Why it matters: War on obesity will not be won unless we take ownership of our own behavior, and stop blaming others


The Mankato Free Press

---- — A new study is being touted as a positive signal that the national scourge of childhood obesity is in decline. Really?

The newly released government study by the Center of Disease Control suggests that obesity in children ages 2-5 dropped from 14 percent to 8 percent in 10 years. That’s nearly a 43 percent decline. That’s unbelievable. Really.

Immediately after the findings were announced, public health advocates as well as first lady Michelle Obama were celebrating, calling the latest news “exciting.” The “Let’s Move” campaign touting more exercise and focusing on nutrition has been a hallmark of the first lady.

Hold on. Let’s tamp down that enthusiasm for a minute and take a closer look at the numbers. This “decline” came only in pre-schoolers and not older children. Even the lead author in the study said these very young children make up a sliver of the American population and that the figures for the vast population have remained flat and even increased for women over 60.

That didn’t stop some people from providing their explanations on why the tide has turned on childhood obesity. They cited all the changes made in nutrition. Really? Well, of course, there’s not much more one can do to get toddlers to increase their exercise. Some moms may want a little less exercise.

But some experts are skeptical of the improvement for toddlers not knowing if these are permanent figures or just a random variation. The preschooler obesity numbers fell from 14 percent in 2003-2004 to 10 percent in 2007-2008, then jumped to 12 in 2009-2010, then slipped to 8 in the most recent survey. These yo-yo results seem suspicious.

And then there’s the wonderment of why preschoolers would be the ones leading the trend. After all, the anti-obesity campaigns targeted older children by attacking vending machines in schools and sugary drinks. That segment of the population saw little improvement.

Without a doubt, obesity is a public health concern. Some health officials call it an epidemic with a third of U.S. children and teens and more than two-thirds of adults being obese or overweight.

And while this new data may — and we caution may — show some good news, it is too early to declare “Mission Accomplished” and our focus may even be misplaced.

Nutrition does play a significant role in fitness but even nutritionists will agree that a significant factor in overall health is exercise.

Remember those children older than the toddlers studied? The CDC earlier noted that children 8-18 years of age spend an average of 7 1/2 hours a day using entertainment media including TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies. The CDC, at that time, said TV viewing is a contributing factor to childhood obesity because it may take away from the time children spend in physical activities; lead to increased energy intake through snacking and eating meals in front of the TV; and, influence children to make unhealthy food choices through exposure to food advertisements.

Last year, the Outdoor Foundation revealed that youth participation in the outdoors has decreased by about 20 percent in the last six years. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources warned of a decline in nature-based outdoor recreation among young adults (ages 20-40) and their children.

President Obama last week challenged black men to do better themselves, and said they must not make excuses for their failures or blame society for the poor decisions they have already made.

We’d like to extend that rationale to the war on obesity. We need to shift our blame from evil food processors and malevolent marketing and look inward. Yes, make smart food choices but push yourself and your children away from the tube and get outdoors, get active. Put down the game console and take a walk with your kids. Stop with the “House of Cards” marathon already and put on some snow shoes.

In the words of that elegant philosopher Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us. Now go fight the good fight. Really.