If you’re carrying around some extra pounds, you are a member of the American majority. More than two-thirds of us are overweight, in spite of the ever-increasing number of diet books, diet plans, and diet programs available to us. While excess weight could be blamed on the slowing of our metabolism as we age or on the more sedentary lifestyles we tend to adopt as we grow older, how can we explain the unprecedented weight gain in children?
According to Eric Finkelstein and Laurie Zuckerman, authors of The Fattening of America,
“…the rate of overweight 6 to 11 year olds tripled from 4 percent to almost 19 percent during the past 30 years. The rate for 12 to 19 year olds mirrored that jump, with an increase in prevalence from 6 percent to over 17 percent…. Since 1990, twice as many children between the ages of 2 and 5 are overweight.”
By now we are all aware that excess weight poses health hazards, and we know that we should eat sensibly and exercise to keep ourselves in shape. With their youthful energy and enthusiasm, children have traditionally and instinctively engaged in healthful activity. Most of us remember begging for a little more play time before we reluctantly went in for dinner or being nagged to clean our plates when we’d much rather have skipped the food in favor of skipping rope. Now, however, it seems we need public service announcements to encourage children to “go out and play an hour a day.” An hour?
What has changed in recent years? Why are we growing so fat so fast? When did children stop playing games and start cultivating heart disease?
Certainly calorie-laden foods are more readily available these days. Fast-food establishments hawk high-fat, high-sugar wares on every street corner. Junk foods are available in vending machines strategically positioned in school hallways. Manufacturers of nutrient-deficient snacks use television advertising to target children. The psychology of eating surely plays into the problem, but Finkelstein and Zuckerman argue that a stronger contributor is the economy. “…Today’s environment provides a vast array of low-cost, tasty, and affordable snack foods…” including such nutritional nightmares as deep-fried Coke, which one of the authors reports finding at a local fair.
Economic and technological advances, the authors insist, “have created an obesity-inducing environment,” making it easy and cheap to eat more and exercise less. While researchers and health-food proponents are keenly aware that the obesity epidemic is a crisis, there is little incentive for marketers or the medical community to squelch it; after all, they’re making easy money by selling sugar-coated lard and by treating the multiple side-effects of obesity. It appears that parents will have to step up and take responsibility for their children’s’ health as well as their own, and the sooner the better. As The Fattening of America points out, “The long term health consequences for childhood obesity may be greater than for underage drinking and smoking.”
A host of forces are at play in this game, and many of them are explored in this book. While the authors conclude that economics is the major villain, that factor seems no more powerful than any of the others they discuss here. Finkelstein and Zuckerman have broken the issue into sections, addressing the why (“Why Now?”, “Why We’re Moving Less”), the who (“ Where Else Can We Lay the Blame?”), and the how (“How to Lose Weight Like an Economist”), with substantial documentation and even a little humor to help the message go down. Any single chapter in The Fattening of America contains enough information to scare a sensible person into action. Armed with a foundation of theories, studies, and experiments, the reader will realize not only that we are being manipulate into destroying our health and our children’s health, but also that we can refuse to be pawns in the game.