In Our View: Preach & Practice

America’s obesity epidemic can be reversed, and parents can show the way

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Both local and national research shows that our nation’s obesity epidemic is fraught with contradictions. Until Americans confront and resolve those conflicts, the problem will only get worse. And it affects everyone, regardless of weight, because obesity is a public health issue, as will be explained below.

At Washington State University Vancouver, Jane Lanigan researches childhood obesity as an assistant professor in human development. Her study of 43 child care and early-learning settings revealed the misconception that the obesity epidemic has been exaggerated. Only 47 percent of Americans see it as a problem. How can that be, though, when we consider statistics from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? In 1980, about 7 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds were considered obese, but in just 28 years that rate almost tripled, to 20 percent in 2008.

Lanigan’s research was presented last Friday at WSUV’s Chancellor Seminar Series lecture: “Barriers to Raising Healthy-Weight Children.” Joining her in the presentation was Dr. Ed Guillery, pediatrician and kidney specialist with Legacy Health. Here are some of the most striking contradictions:

More than one third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, yet 78 percent of Americans believe there are too many regulations, such as banning chips and sweets in schools.

Many people believe the problem belongs only to those who are overweight or obese, but Lanigan points out, “This is not an individual issue. This is a public health issue.” As Dr. Guillery notes, “It shortens people’s lives.” That means the public bears much of the costs of dealing with the myriad health threats.

According to food research firm Technomic, 47 percent of Americans say they wish healthier items such as salads and baked potatoes were offered in more restaurants, but only 23 percent order those foods. Our habits contradict our beliefs. Our appetites trump our common sense.

IHOP has earned plaudits for offering a Simple & Fit menu with yogurt and fruit bowls, but can you guess what remains IHOP’s top seller? You got it: the breakfast sampler, replete with eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, hash browns and pancakes. The writer feels fatter just typing that last sentence. Perhaps it’s the 1,180 calories that are shoved into the sampler.

Even McDonald’s is making a few token attempts at healthful menu items, but those packaged apple slices? Sales figures show only 11 percent of parents order them in place of fries in the Happy Meals.

We have long editorialized that the best strategy as families confront the obesity epidemic is not government regulations but frank discussions around the family dinner table.

But be careful. Some parental efforts don’t work so well.

For example, Lanigan recommends that, instead of denying sweets, go ahead and let the child have a dessert, but share a discussion over the importance of healthful foods. Lanigan also suggests letting kids dish up their own plates, accompanied by explanations about types and portions of foods.

And, of course, parents should remember their duties as role models. Dr. Guillery said, “Kids watch what we eat.” He also suggests a ban on multitasking while eating. Instead, gather as a family at the dinner table, and prepare meals at home as often as possible. “Our culture encourages us not to cook,” he correctly pointed out.

Kids respect parents who speak the truth and emphasize healthful values. Kids also see our contradictions. When we finally decide to let our behavior reflect our beliefs, we can control and reverse the worsening obesity epidemic.