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Teens' Views Offer Insight Into "Obesity Epidemic"

Teens' Views Offer Insight Into "Obesity Epidemic"

by Jennifer Robison

It is never easy to be the "fat kid." Those of us who were remember the teasing, the "husky" sized clothes, and the feeling of never fitting in. The surgeon general calls what overweight kids face "social discrimination." Those who experienced it often remember it as pure misery. Unfortunately, misery is starting to have a lot of company. A 1999 surgeon general's report found that 14% of youths between the ages of 12 and 19 are overweight. The number of overweight kids in the United States has doubled in the last 20 years.

A May 2001 Gallup Youth Survey (GYS)* asked teen-agers (aged 13-17) about their diets, and 69% said their diets were "okay" (versus only 21% who said they eat a "healthy" diet). Fourteen percent said they had been on a food binge in the last 30 days. Twelve percent said they were dieting to lose weight. Medical experts tend to confirm what these data suggest -- that many teens have poor eating habits and may be overweight as a result.

When asked about childhood obesity, Daniel Marks, MD, PhD, assistant professor in pediatric endocrinology at Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland, said in the American Medical News, "It's probably one of the most critical health problems facing all of medicine right now. People are getting desperate, and children are dying of obesity." In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned of growing "obesity epidemic" in the United States. A CDC study from that year found that obese kids face elevated blood cholesterol, blood pressure or increased insulin levels -- the factors that lead to hypertension, atherosclerosis and diabetes.

The 2001 GYS found that 76% of kids think what they eat affects their future health. Good news, because Type 2 diabetes, the most common kind, is strongly linked to obesity. Type 2 diabetes can result in blindness, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, lower limb amputations and early death. Until recently, this type of diabetes was commonly referred to as "adult onset diabetes" because it was hardly ever seen in children. But it has become so prevalent that the American Diabetes Association (ADA) held a conference on Type 2 diabetes in children and adolescents in 1999. The ADA found an alarming upswing in the disease among kids, and anticipates quite negative effects. The ADA's consensus statement says, ". . . the burden of diabetes and its complications will affect many more individuals than currently anticipated, and the cost of diabetes to our society will cause us to consume enormous resources. Also, many more Americans will be taking potent medications, which have attendant risks, for most of their lives."

Although the health risks associated with obesity in kids are severe, obesity is curable for many. The first thing experts often advise is to turn off the television -- in a 1999 study released in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at Stanford University demonstrated a direct link between watching television and body weight among third- and fourth-graders. Television-watching keeps kids sedentary, bombards them with ads for junk food, and diverts their attention from what they're eating.

Schools all over the country are also trying to get junk food out of their vending machines. Congress took up legislation in late May, the Obesity Prevention and Treatment Act, which would include funding for nutrition programs in schools. According to the 2001 GYS, although 71% of teens agree that a healthy diet is very important to overall health, nearly one-fourth of teens (23%) are very or somewhat confused about what constitutes a healthy diet.

Overweight kids are beset with problems, both physical and emotional, that thinner people may never face. The medical community, the government, the schools and concerned parents are starting to notice. Possibly, with the help of better education about what constitutes healthy eating habits and more encouragement to turn off the television and get outside to exercise, the next generation of kids will never know what a husky clothing label looks like.

*Findings are based on telephone interviews with a national cross section of 501 teen-agers, aged 13 to 17, conducted in May 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5%.

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