The Nutrition Myth
It's easy to assume that people with obesity, including children, are obtaining adequate, even abundant, levels of nutrition. How could they not? They're likely consuming many more calories than their bodies need; shouldn't a commensurate increase in nutrient values come along with that?
Research has shown, however, that the opposite is the case. Joel Cohen of the California Research Bureau notes:
"Even with excessive calorie consumption, children and adults can still be deficient in many essential minerals and vitamins. This is possible by eating “empty calorie" foods that contain limited or no nutritional value but are high in sugar, fats and/or cholesterol. "
Overconsumption of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods like fast food and "junk" food, along with easy-to-prepare highly processed foods often occurs at the expense of nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein. For a number of reasons, many parents of obese children are unable to provide their children good nutrition choices. It can be as simple as lack of knowledge of what makes a food nutritious, but several social and behavioral factors are also extremely important to understanding the link between child obesity and poor nutrition.
How Poor Nutrition Promotes Childhood Obesity
Bellows and Roach identified four risk areas for childhood obesity in a paper for Colorado State University: genetics, behavior, demographics, and socio-economic environment. The role of nutrition falls primarily under the last three categories.
"An increase in availability and consumption of high-calorie convenience foods and beverages, more meals eaten away from home, fewer family meals, and greater portion sizes all may contribute to childhood overweight. Further, many children’s diets do not meet nutrition guidelines. For example, only 8 percent of children in Colorado ate vegetables three or more times per day as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture."
The prime food culprit in childhood obesity identified by researchers across the board is a prevalence of fast food and highly processed foods. Children who become obese consume a disproportionate amount of fast food and processed foods as compared to non-obese children. These foods are high in calories, but low in nutrients, helping to explain why a child might develop obesity while simultaneously not getting enough vitamins, minerals, and other nutrition.
Lower socio-economic levels and some demographics, particularly Latino and African-American, have a higher incidence of childhood obesity and poor nutrition due to several factors, including:
- Lack of money – High calorie, low nutrient food is cheaper.
- Time – Working long hours or two or more jobs; single parenting.
- Lack of access – Many areas around the country are "food deserts," lacking supermarkets, with only high-priced, highly-processed foods available via fast food restaurants and convenience marts.
- Culture – Caryn Panec of California State University found that "[a]dvertisements during African American programming and magazines targeted to that community show more high-calorie, low-nutrition foods." When the media heavily promotes unhealthy food choices, children are influenced by them.
The solution to childhood obesity isn't simply the old canard, "Eat less, and exercise more." In many cases, several risk factors for child obesity and poor nutrition options come together in a perfect storm. For a child watching Nickelodeon, four out of five advertisements with food is promoting food with poor nutritional value. The child's parents may work long hours for little money, and have little knowledge of good nutrition themselves. The child goes to school to find high calorie, low nutrient fast food options as their only choice because the school saved money contracting food service out. Additionally, the only food stores for miles are convenience stores. Is it any wonder a child surrounded by such poor nutritional choices develops obesity?
Panec, Caryn. “The Effect of Media Usage on Childhood Obesity", https://www.csun.edu/~whw2380/542/documents/AnnotatedbibilographybyCarynPanec.doc
Bellows, L. and Roach, J. "Childhood Obesity", https://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09317.html
Cohen, Joel. "Overweight Kids: Why Should We Care?", https://www.library.ca.gov/crb/00/08/00-008.pdf
Image by Larry D. Moore, used under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License.