Asking the Big, Fat Question

Posted by Bobbi Murray on June 2, 2008

The huge news this past week, of course, was Scott McClellan, who, a few years too late, called his former White House boss a big, fat liar.

But “big fat” was key in another story that got a few day’s notice.

A New York Times article reported that childhood obesity rates in the U.S., while still high, have stopped climbing after two decades of steady upward creep.

The May 28 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association released survey data from the Centers For Disease Control that detail the numbers, still damn grim–some 32% of kids falling into the overweight and obese percentiles, 17% obese.

But, for the moment, the rates have stopped growing.

Why the plateau? Experts were circumspect in their comments. The sunnier assessment: concerted educational campaigns and coordinated local efforts have schools trading Fritos for fruit and have sent kids huffing out to the playground at recess.

Naysayers bleakly pointed out that while that could be the reason, local governments slash the physical education programs in many areas that have seen positive results, already having passed the test, as it were.

Lamentations about Our Fat Kids always seem to make good copy and teevee. Every few months Ann Curry earnestly tsk tsks with an NBC resident expert on the Today Show about sedentary kids and the garbage they eat. The conversation assumes it’s about personal choice, bad habits, less-than-vigilant parents.

But here’s a question that won’t make it into the happiness bubble that is the morning TV talk show.

How do race and poverty factor into the outsize rate of overweight and obesity in kids?

While we look at the entire epidemic, should we be looking at links between our sinking standard of living and the numbers of kids living with unhealthy weight levels?

Epidemiologists and statisticians are hereby invited to yell at me here, because I’m neither, so may be completely misinterpreting numbers and correlations and like that.

But look — this from the New York Times article about the study:

While about 14.5 percent of white adolescent girls were obese, the numbers jumped to 20 percent for Mexican-American teenage girls and 28 percent for black teenage girls. Among boys, Mexican-Americans were also more likely to have a high body mass index compared with white boys.

Then these stats from the National Center for Children in Poverty Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health: 61% of Latino kids live in poverty. As do 60% of African-American kids.

Certainly it seems the overall trend in childhood obesity — from 5% in the 1970s to 17% now — reflects the triumph of Mickey D’s and couch-flopping in our culture.

But 20% of Mexican-American teenage girls, 28% of African-American teen girls overweight to obese? Yikes.

If you look at those stats along with those for poverty, it raises a few questions. Such as: could those obesity rates be related to living in neighborhoods where Cheetos with lime and jalape o is the local “grocery” store’s version of a fruit and a vegetable? Or where the air is so foul and streets so dangerous that a brisk walk itself is a health risk?

Not to mention households where the parents are so stressed working long hours — maybe at more than one job — that there’s hardly time to scavenge for better food options.

Googling more, I found a letter to the editor of PEDIATRICS, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The doctors who wrote the letter were disputing, or maybe re-framing, the conclusions of a study the journal published. In their letter the doctors said:

The economic imperative to purchase highly energy-dense foods is part of the adaptation to poverty.

Thanks to the low cost of added sugars and fats in the American diet, those foods providing the most energy per dollar are also those that are the most calorie-dense, and experimental studies in adults have shown convincingly that when individuals consume more calorie-dense foods, they take in more total calories per day.”

It goes outside the usual parameters of debate in this country to discuss poverty within any kind of context. At least lately we’ve seen the story about middle-class people stretched so far — particularly with gas prices — that they go to food pantries.

Magazines and TV nag and lecture about calorie-cutting tips and half-hour calorie-burning workouts.

Which, by the way, are hard to cram into your schedule if you are a middle-class person stretched so thin by the economy that the only running in place you do is about keeping your income ahead of your expenses.

We’re a culture that obsessively discusses fat to the point of guessing which stars are deliberately starving themselves.

But discussion of the economic and social reasons behind the overweight epidemic?

Expect more of the same — a big fat obfuscation.

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