According to the CDC, obesity affected about 13.7 million children and adolescents in the United States in 2016. Unfortunately, the majority of these kids will grow up to be obese adults. These obese adults will then require more healthcare and economic resources than healthy individuals.
The Problem is Not Just A Lack of Physical Activity
It can be easy to point to the prevalence of childhood obesity today and say that it’s obviously because of less physical activity. Kids today spend more time playing video games and browsing the internet than they did two decades ago.
Weight gain, and ultimately obesity, is caused by one thing – caloric surplus. Physical activity and exercise is obviously one way to burn calories, but it exercise a smaller role in weight loss than eating less. The “food” comprising the “typical American diet” is not conducive to weight loss whatsoever.
The Typical American Diet Is To Blame
Over the last 30-40 years, the American diet has transformed to include more processed foods, more sugar, and more low-quality calories. Regardless of what Americans are eating, we are just eating too much. As out diet becomes more and more processed, it becomes easier to consume too many calories.
The U.S. Subsidizes The Production of Unhealthy Foods
The federal government spends over $20 billion per year on subsidizing agriculture and farm businesses. According the the Environmental Working Group, the majority of this money goes to the largest producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice.
The foods created from these agricultural commodities are some of the least healthy and lowest in nutrients. As the production of these foods continues to be propped up by government funding, small farms growing healthier, organic vegetables and organic, grass-fed meats struggle to compete with the mass production of other food products.
Correlation Between Poverty and Obesity
It is well known that poorer Americans are more likely to be obese or suffer from diabetes; there is a strong negative correlation between household income and both obesity and diabetes.Source: Science Daily
Sadly, and oddly, in the United States, it is not rich people who are most vulnerable to obesity but poor people. Because of government subsidies of corn and soy, processed foods with these ingredients are cheap and accessible to low-income communities. High consumption of processed food is associated with weight gain and other health problems like diabetes.
Highly processed foods basically hijack our brain’s rewards center, which leads to people overeating these foods. Whole foods, like meats, fruits and vegetables, don’t do this and as a result are less likely to be over-consumed. Whole foods are associated with higher costs, but there are a number of healthy, whole foods that are affordable and can be purchased at any grocery store.
What Are The Incentives To Improve Health?
Agriculture, tech, and food are big industries. If we want to improve the health of Americans, these industries need to adjust to produce better health outcomes. Unfortunately, shifting these massive industries is going to be a slow, gradual change.
Under the current system, there is very little incentive to improve health at the societal level. If people consume less food, require less healthcare, and become more active, the industries that serve these needs will lose out on potential profits.
At the individual level though, the incentives to maintain a healthy lifestyle are countless. You will spend less on healthcare in your lifetime. You will be capable of doing more physical activity. And finally, you will likely live longer.
What I Would Do To Solve Childhood (and Adult) Obesity
I have a few ideas that I would implement, if I were put in charge of a task force to solve the obesity crisis in the United States. I was overweight for the majority of my childhood and I found that it held me back in a number of ways. Today I am fit and healthy and I want to help kids embrace healthy living from a young age to avoid the health and social issues connected with being “a fat kid”.
Step 1: Improve Health & Wellness Education
I was lucky to go to some of the best schools in my state. Although my education was fantastic, I still feel that my knowledge of health and wellness topics was incredibly lacking coming out of high school. The education materials around health and wellness felt outdated and vague.
If we truly want to get rid of childhood obesity, we need to give young people the knowledge they need to get healthy on their own. Although there are plenty of outside factors that influence a person’s health, empowering kids to make their own decisions is essential for making longterm progress.
Step 2: Spread Awareness About Fitness and Performance
There is a very clear connection between health and performance in most cases. If someone is playing a sport, they are going to be more capable and perform better if they are healthy. By getting kids involved in sports, even if they are overweight or not the best on their team, we can help promote healthy habits from a young age.
I’m a strong believer that once you see some progress in something like running, cycling, weightlifting or another sport you will be more likely to stick with it and work to achieve more and more. This worked for me when I found cycling in my teenage years. I overhauled my entire life to help me work towards my cycling goals. The passion I found in cycling allowed me to remain dedicated and even now that I don’t ride my bike that much, I have shifted to other area of fitness.
I hear a lot of people discussing their long-term goals for fitness and performance. I’ve heard people say that they are training for longevity, and I think that is certainly a worthy goal. However, I think dedicating yourself to performing at a high level has more ability to influence people to adopt healthy habits.
Read More: My Journey from Fat Kid to Fitness Freak
Step 3: Build a Network of Fitness/Healthy Lifestyle Mentors
I remember how terrible it was being the fat kid in gym class. But I also know how amazing it felt to finally feel like I was “in shape” and know that I was healthier than I’d ever been. I want to help kids who are struggling with their weight get in shape and learn healthy habits. I think Big Brothers Big Sisters is an amazing organization that helps at-risk youth build relationships with role models in their communities. My goal is to build something like this that focuses on promoting fitness, healthy eating, and good habits in low-income or generally overweight communities.
I’m lucky enough to have encountered a good role model as a child, who helped me see what it looked like to focus on health and fitness. But I know that if I didn’t meet this person, my life may look a lot different. I may have fallen into a life without healthy habits like exercising and eating a healthy diet. One mentor can make a huge difference in a child’s life and I want to spread healthy lifestyles to as many kids as possible.
Have you gone through a lifestyle transformation for the better? If so, what led you to make the changes necessary to improve your health and lifestyle?