What are the biggest threats to America’s children? While there’s a long list to choose from, you’ll often hear people mention firearms, failing schools, and Facebook (as well as other social media tools). The biggest long-term threat to the health and well-being of American children, however, may be something else altogether: food. More specifically, the highly processed, sugar-laden concoctions that, along with sugar-sweetened beverages, have become fixtures in the diets of American adolescents.
The result is a sad – and shocking – fact: nearly one in five American children under the age of 19 are obese, according to the CDC, meaning they have a body mass index of 30 or higher (25 or above is considered overweight). For example, a 12-year-old boy who is 5’5” and weighs 185 pounds has a BMI of 30.8. (BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of height in meters – a BMI calculator can be found here.)
To put this prevalence in perspective, back in 2016 data from the OECD has showed that the United States has the highest child obesity rate among select OECD, G20, and EU28 countries. Let that sink in. The United States – one of the world’s wealthiest nations, with a tradition of breakthrough innovations (like the polio vaccine) that have delivered better health to people throughout the world – is now home to millions of children who, instead of thriving through childhood, are being saddled with obesity’s adverse effects – from diabetes to depression.
The explanation for weight gain in adults is pretty simple: you fail to burn more calories than you have consumed. It’s more complicated with children, who naturally gain weight as they mature, and over the past 50 years, this natural weight gain has gone into overdrive.
During this period, there’s been a steady erosion in the quality of the American diet. Adults, in particular, started eating more of the bad stuff and less of the good stuff. Predictably, this resulted in obesity rates creeping steadily upward, reaching 42.4 percent, which is the highest in the world, outside of Kuwait and a few small island nations.
Children – who are, of course, typically dependent on adults for sustenance – have been collateral damage as the country has experienced dietary decline. In 1975, only about five percent of American children were obese. Since then, the obesity rate among children ages 12-19 has quadrupled.
It’s not hard to see why. Two-thirds of the calories children consume come from ultra-processed foods. Here’s how one medical journal defines ultra-processed foods: “industrial formulations which . . . include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations.” In other words, junk food.
The calorie consumption figure comes from a study published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study’s authors looked at consumption trends from 1999 to 2018 and found that the biggest increase in ultra-processed consumption came from ready-to-eat (or ready-to-heat) concoctions such as frozen pizza. They were just 2.2 percent of total calories consumed in 1999. By 2018, they were 11.2 percent.
Encouraging children to eat healthily is an age-old challenge – I loathed brussels sprouts in my youth – and the challenge has only mounted in recent decades. Processed food and fast food are more prevalent – and more accessible – than they were decades ago.
That goes hand-in-hand with another damaging trend: American families are devoting less time to cooking. While preparing meals at home is far from guaranteed to lead to healthy consumption, it’s likely to be an improvement over the fare found in restaurants, which is overwhelmingly high in fat and low in nutritional quality.
Another challenge is aggressive marketing of unhealthy foods to children. Preschoolers, children, and teens viewed on average 2.1 to 2.3 fast-food TV ads per day in 2019, according to a recent report by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. The advertising is directed at black youth in particular. In 2019, they viewed approximately 75 percent more fast-food TV ads than their white peers, the report said.
McDonald’s has gone to great lengths to cultivate the youth market. In September 2020, the company started a celebrity endorsement campaign, initially featuring rap star Travis Scott. These endorsements have a clear purpose, helping McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants like it gain access to where children can be found today – on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. McDonald’s freely admits that its social media efforts are directed at young people. “If you think about the target we’re focusing on, which is youth and youth culture, that’s where they’re living,” one of the company’s vice presidents told the New York Times recently.
The COVID lockdowns only escalated the challenge of keeping kids from gaining weight, as they had limited opportunities to participate in organized sports, and food was typically just a few steps away. A Kaiser Permanente study that was published in August 2021, and was based on the electronic health records of nearly 200,000 young people in southern California, showed that children ages 5-11 gained five more pounds during COVID than they did in the pre-COVID period. There was also a nearly 24 percent relative increase in the share of children 5-11 who were overweight or obese.
Sadly, obesity is only one element of a larger health challenge facing American children. When UNICEF published a report last year on the well-being of children in 38 high-income countries, children in the United States ranked 36th overall out of the 38 countries. In the physical health category, American children ranked dead last, reflecting the prevalence of obesity.
Reversing this sad state of affairs won’t be easy – and there’s no consensus about what should be done. One idea is to restrict junk-food advertising that targets children. Another is to restore cooking classes in schools, as a study published in 2018 found that when people aged 18-23 possessed “very adequate cooking skills,” they had “better nutrition-related outcomes 10 years later.” More time exercising (or just playing) and less time staring at a smartphone screen would help as well.
The greatest potential for progress, however, rests with adults – be they parents, relatives, or caretakers of some kind – working to improve the diet of the children in their lives. One way to ensure this progress – and perhaps the best way – is to lead by example. In shorthand terms, that means more broccoli and fewer burgers.
A tall order to be sure, but it’s our best chance for improving the health – and reducing the weight – of America’s children.
Matthew Rees is editor-in-chief of the Food and Health Facts newsletter.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.