Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Out of the Minivan
The Real Cause of Childhood Obesity

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 26, 2005 --  

Cleaning children's crumpled candy packages and cellophane Twinkie wrappers out of the bushes in front of my townhouse is a regular part of spring cleaning. With Stewart Middle School only a block away, my home literally provides a window to collect visual and physical evidence in America's debate on childhood obesity.

Based on statistics from the Center for Disease Control, the problem has grown markedly. In the 1960s, only 5 percent of teenage kids were overweight, but in the early part of this decade, the number had jumped to 16 percent.1 Bad diets get most of the blame for the growing problem. Soda and fast food companies have been targeted by activists, perhaps most famously in last year's popular film, "Supersize Me," about a man who nearly poisoned his body eating nothing but food from McDonald's.

This film was but a reflection of the anti-fast food mentality has become so popular with the politically correct crowd. Major food, beverage, and snack companies are seen as unhealthy, anti-environmental and even predatory. In the face of such vicious attacks, it should be no surprise that the industries' lobbyists have responded in kind.

So when a new federal health study came out last week attributing less than a third as many deaths to obesity as previous government studies,2 the lobbyists' gloves were already off. In full page advertisements in seven major newspapers yesterday, an industry lobbying front-group3 called the Center for Consumer Freedom seized on the conflicting studies and concluded that the obesity issue is simply "hype."4

It's difficult to be sympathetic with a sleazy lobbying front-group that stubbornly refuses to mention the names of its clients, but the group does make some good points about the excesses of the anti-fat crowd. The federal government's body mass index widely overstates obesity in people with muscular builds. Lawsuits against fast food companies are an outrageous abdication of personal responsibility. And yes, government estimates of obesity-related deaths are terribly inconsistent.

But highlighting the transgressions of the anti-fat movement doesn't change the simple fact that America's kids are fat and getting fatter. Unless Americans decide to resign themselves to a future of obesity, it would be worthwhile having an honest discussion of the problem's root causes.

From my window, a pile of discarded snack wrappers might seem to back up the food-based explanations for childhood obesity. But there's one problem -- all those wrappers left behind by the kids of my neighborhood are not consistent with the children's appearances. Few of the kids walking by my home on the way to school look fat.

Turn the corner toward the school, however, and appearances change. If you look behind the big line of SUVs and minivans at the curb of the school, you'll notice plenty of overweight kids getting out. Had you not been taught that food was the real problem, you might think there were some connection between getting fat and getting a ride to school.

And you'd be thinking right. Over the same period of time that the rate of childhood obesity has skyrocketed, the percentage of kids walking to school has plummeted. Today, only a third of kids who live within a mile of school regularly walk the distance, compared to 87 percent in 1969, according to the CDC.5

So much attention has been paid to food as a cause of obesity, that it is amazing how little has been given to physical activity -- a factor every bit as important in maintaining a healthy weight. Exercise did receive a small amount of attention last week, when the Department of Agriculture released a revised version of the food pyramid including physical activity as a component of a healthy lifestyle.6

But even this attention was lost in the noise. The PBS children's show, Sesame Street, announced the very same week that its Cookie Monster character was going to eat healthy foods and learn to eat cookies only as a "sometimes food." Television coverage was non-stop. So much for highlighting exercise.

At the same time as it stuffs kids with food, the modern American lifestyle starves children of exercise. Kids ride around in minivans watching DVDs, waiting to be shuttled to their next organized activity or play date. Few kids get the chance to "go out and play" anymore, just as few are allowed to walk to school. When children do finally get to exercise, it is part of a contrived, organized athletic experience that is completely divorced from the daily routine. It should be no surprise that this lifestyle creates fat kids.

While bad diets certainly play a part in producing overweight children, this year's 75th anniversary of the Twinkie should bring home the point that selling fatty, sugary food to kids is hardly a recent invention. McDonald's French fries, Snickers bars, and Cheetos were just as widely available 40 years ago, when far fewer children were overweight. The dramatic change in the past 40 years is not in food intake, but in the level of physical activity in children's daily lives.

So what is the best advice for parents to give today's kids? Lay off the fatty foods, most certainly. Go to soccer practice, sure. But -- for heaven's sake -- get out of the minivan and walk to school. And after you walk back home, just go out and play.

Related Web Columns:

Submitting to Animal Instincts
America's New Culinary Fixation
, February 10, 2004

Riding to the Buffet, October 15, 2002

Segway to Obesity, April 30, 2002


1. Center for Disease Control, Prevalence of Overweight Among Children and Adolescents: United States, 1999-2002, February 8, 2005

2. The Washington Post, Fewer U.S. Deaths Linked to Obesity, April 20, 2005

3. PR Watch, / Center for Consumer Freedom profile, as posted April 25, 2005

4. Center for Consumer Freedom, CDC Must Retract Obesity Deaths Study, April 19, 2005

5. USA Today, Trek to school not like it used to be, Dec. 21, 2004

6. The Washington Post, Food Pyramid Gets New Look, April 20, 2005