Overweight Yet Hungry Kids: 
Finding the roots of childhood obesity and helping kids feel good about themselves

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Size matters! Just ask any child (or adult) who struggles with their weight. Even though the number of overweight children and teens has skyrocketed over the past few decades, those kids carrying excess weight are more likely to experience a disproportionate share of  bullying and rejection. Even adults may unknowingly treat overweight children differently. The new school year should be an exciting time, but normal back-to-school “butterflies” can be exaggerated when children are fearful of being teased or left out.

What's a loving parent to do? First and foremost, avoid restrictive “diets;” they can backfire and lead to disordered eating. Instead, treat children with compassion. They are hungriest for our love, support and acceptance regardless of their size. Create a safe and supportive home that is free from blame and shame. Finally, learn more about the many factors that contribute to weight gain and work to create a truly nourishing environment for all children. (1)  

Math and More 

Controlling weight has largely been considered a numbers game: take in more calories than we burn and we gain weight. To lose weight, eat less and move more. Sounds simple, right?

Unfortunately, eating smaller portions (and burning extra calories with exercise) is no easy task. After all, we live in America, where super-sized “cheap” food beckons at every corner.

Marion Nestle, author of Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics(2)  says its “conceptually difficult” for people to understand that “larger portions have more calories, and more calories make you gain weight. She says “we don’t need any more complicated explanation for obesity than large portions.” (3)
According to Nestle, “If food is there, you’re going to eat it, and if the food is there in larger portions, you’re going to eat more.” (3)

As the graph below shows, our cheap bounty carries a hefty price. As the cost of food has been declining over recent decades, our health care expenses—in part related to obesity—have risen sharply.(4) 

Obesity Chart

Dr. David Wallinga, Director of the Food and Health Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, reports that from 1970 to 2003, Americans' per capita health care spending increased from $353 to $5,711 annually. At the same time, total dollars spent on food as a percentage of disposable income declined from  24% in 1930, to 14% in 1970; today it’s just 9.6%.(4)

A recent, 4-part HBO series on obesity concluded with a national call to action because the obesity epidemic is bankrupting our nation and threatening our children’s futures. (5)

Obesogens: What We Can’t See Can Hurt Our Kids

What the HBO series left out is the growing evidence that diet and exercise alone can't fully explain the dramatic increase in the incidence of obesity that we've seen over the past three decades. In fact, there is increasing concern over chemicals in our environment, called: “obesogens,” which are an under-recognized culprit in our obesity epidemic. (6-11)
Most obesogens are endocrine disrupting chemicals  that enter our food and water from a variety of sources, such as: plastic-related compounds (BPA and pthalates), pesticides, hormones given to livestock, pharmaceuticals, and industrial chemicals. These chemicals disrupt our hormone systems, and can alter our fat metabolism and appetite, and cause insulin resistance and a propensity to gain weight, depending on when we're exposed. (6-11)

For example, the pesticides atrazine and DDE (the breakdown product from DDT) have been linked to increased body weight in children and insulin resistance in rodents. (8) BPA, which is found in the lining of many canned foods, programs fat cells to store more fat. In animal studies, BPA exposure leads to an increase in abdominal fat and glucose intolerance. (8)
Even when present at levels lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's stated "level of concern," endocrine disrupting pesticides pose a health risk because they are biologically active at extremely low levels. (6, 8)

More (Organic) Produce Please

We know eating fruits and vegetables helps us maintain a healthy weight.(12) However, as the HBO film series points out, our agricultural policies don’t provide farmers with incentives to grow broccoli and strawberries, let alone organic produce. Instead, our national Farm Bill provides financial advantages for growing commodity crops, such as (GMO) corn and soybeans—the building blocks of cheap food.

In order to meet national dietary recommendations to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, we need more farmers growing produce on many more acres of farmland. Today, less than 3 percent of American crop land is used to grow fruits or vegetables.(5) And young farmers who want to produce healthy, organic food, struggle to find affordable land, investment capital and access to health insurance. (13)

Here’s where a change in national farm and health policy could help reduce obesity rates.

Toxic Advertising:  Watching What We Eat or Eating What We Watch? 

Tune in to Saturday morning cartoons, and you won’t see enticing ads for organic produce or dairy. Children see about 5,500 TV commercials for food products each year, and 98% of those are for processed foods that are high in fat, sugar, salt and calories.(5,14) According to the Institute of Medicine, TV ads directly influence children’s food choices, brand preferences, and requests (read: pestering parents) for “junk” foods. (14)

To honestly tackle our nation’s obesity epidemic, we must address both personal choice, and society’s role in creating safe environments.

References and Resources:

1.“Children’s Food Environment State Indicator Report, 2011,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/downloads/ChildrensFoodEnvironment.pdf
2.  Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, Marion Nestle and Malden Neshein, University of CA Press, 2012. http://www.foodpolitics.com/books/
3. Marion Nestle interview on Food Sleuth Radio, June 28, 2012. http://kopn.org/a/fl2.html?http://kopn.org/dc/fs/06-28-12%20Food%20Sleuth%20Radio.mp3
4. “Today’s Food System: How Healthy Is It?’ Wallinga, David, Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, Volume 4, Issue 3 & 4, July 2009, pages 251 – 281.
5. Weight of the Nation film series and tool kit.  http://theweightofthenation.hbo.com/films
6. "Environmental Estrogens, Endocrine Disruptors and Obesity," VomSaal, F., et. al. in: Obesity: Epidemiology, Pathophysiology, and Prevention, Bagchi,D. and Preuss, H., editors.  CRC Press, 2007
7. “Is Supersize More than Just “Too Much Food?” Birnbaum, Linda. Environmental Health Perspectives, June 2012
8.  “Obesogens: An Environmental Link to Obesity,” Holtcamp, W. Environmental Health Perspectives, February, 2012. http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.120-a62
9. “What Do We Know about Obesogens? with Bruce Blumberg,” Ahearn, A. Environmental Health Perspectives. July 2, 2012. http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.trp070212
10. "Endocrine Disruptors, Pesticides and Other Environmental Toxins," McCullum-Gomez, C., Benbrook, C., and Theur, R., in: That First Step: Organic Food and a Healthier Future.  March, 2009. http://www.organic-center.org/reportfiles/That_First_Step_Full.pdf
11. “Environment and Obesity in the National Children’s Study.” Trasande, L, et. al. Environmental Health Perspectives, Sept. 2008.
12. CDC. “Healthy Weight: It’s Not a Diet, It’s a Lifestyle.” http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/healthy_eating/fruits_vegetables.html 
13. “Building a Future with Farmers,” National Young Farmer Coalition.  http://www.youngfarmers.org/newsroom/building-a-future-with-farmers-october-2011/
14.  Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity? Institute of Medicine, 2005. http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2005/Food-Marketing-to-Children-and-Youth-Threat-or-Opportunity.aspx

Did you Know? Startling facts about childhood obesity

  • •Obesity rates have tripled among children and teens since 1980. Today, nearly one-third of our nation’s children and teens ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese.
  • •America’s children may be the first generation in history with a shorter life span than their parents due to rapidly rising obesity rates. One in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes.
  • •15% of the vegetables children eat are potato chips and French fries.
  • •Sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, fruit drinks and sports beverages, are the largest sources of sugar in the diets of children and teens

Help children eat “well” and feel good about themselves no matter what their weight:

  • •Advocate at school for: organic school gardens, cooking classes, and a ban on sugary drinks and other fast-food-like items from your child’s cafeteria and vending machines.
  • •Trade screen time for “green time.” Nourish your child’s curiosity and sense of wonder, while alleviating boredom and behavior problems with time spent outdoors in nature.
  • •Feed your children organic food. You’ll help reduce your child’s exposure to hormone disrupting pesticides, as well as hormones from injected livestock.
  • •Avoid obesogens. Filter your water, and use glass rather than plastic food and beverage containers. Never microwave or heat food in plastic, and avoid food cans lined with BPA. (See: http://www.breastcancerfund.org/reduce-your-risk/tips/avoid-bpa.html ).
  • •Recognize, value and praise children for their unique strengths, skills and talents. Introduce children to different hobbies, sports, music, art and community activities to develop their self-esteem independent of body weight.

Recommended Reading and Listening

“I’m Like, SO Fat! Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World,” Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Guilford Press, 2005. Listen to Neumark-Sztainer on Food Sleuth Radio:

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