Posted by NYU student intern Victoria Stroker
As I sat on my commute home, stuffed on the D train amongst a swarm of chatty, over-energized, lime-green-shirt-wearing children on their way to summer camp, I couldn’t help but notice the two young girls next to me. The young girl to my left, probably around 13 years old could not fit into the small, indented “seat” in the subway car; I found myself squished even more towards the metal bar to my right. As I considered the difficulties of being overweight as a teenager (let’s face it, teenage years are hard enough as it is—thank you very much braces AND glasses) I was disrupted by the sound of fizzing. The young girl sitting next to me was opening up an orange colored bottle of soda (mind you, this was 10 AM). Sip. Close up the bottle. Ruffling of her backpack. Crunch, crunch (Cheetos). Orange colored dust appeared on her fingertips. Dust off orange dust. Less than a minute later, repeat. Opening of bottle, sip, close up bottle, open up backpack, crunch crunch, dust off, close backpack. This repeated about ten times until I exited the train. She couldn’t stop. If I needed any more evidence that junk food is addicting, this was it.
Research that is conducted on junk food and the brain states that the interaction is very similar to drugs and the brain; as with drugs, there is a viscous addiction that takes place between the brain and hyper-processed food. This startling observation on the train is one of many I see on a daily basis. The facts that face our country about childhood obesity are available and alarming. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a national organization, tells us that “childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years” As of 1980, only 7% of children were obese; compare that to 2012 rates of 18%. As Jamie Oliver, chef, TV personality and activist for better-food education mentions in his 2010 Ted Talk, “a child will lead a shorter life than his/her own parents (10 years to be exact) because of the issues of obesity and overweight youth.”
There is a misbelief that overweight children can easily “outgrow” their extra weight. Yet even if a child is lucky enough to “grow” out of their weight, many poor food habits stay with that individual into their adult life. Not to mention the teasing, name-calling, and emotional turmoil that overweight children deal with, which is imprinted for a lifetime. Being overweight as a child can also have serious consequences to one’s health, especially if their weight maintains into their adult years. Overweight or obese youth may be at risk for pre-diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and other risks. Additionally, as an obese adult, risks increase to include Type 2 diabetes, stroke, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, etc.
What I observed on the train forces me to reconsider a question from a course I took at NYU while gaining my Masters in Nutrition. The question: Whose responsibility is the health of our children? Here is where my thoughts lie: If a child is overweight, is it the school’s responsibility to inform parents? Does the nurse need to alert parents if a child’s BMI is alarming? Should schools be feeding better food to children, while banning sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks? Does nutrition education need to be implemented in schools at a younger age? How much of the issue should fall on personal responsibility? Should parents be making better choices for their children? What if parents do not have the resources (money, time, etc.) to cook fresh food at home? Should doctors be discussing with their young patients and parents the real risks of being overweight as a child? What if there is no doctor in the situation, due to a lack of health insurance? Public policy: do we need to create more awareness for parents of the health risks of junk food, just like we have done for cigarettes? Our government: should junk food commercials be banned from children’s networks? Should parents be limiting screen time for their children and focusing more on healthy foods and physical activity at home? How do you enforce something like that? Lots of questions for a complicated topic…
I don’t believe there is a simple solution to the issue of childhood obesity, but responsibility by all groups mentioned needs to be taken. The “broken” food system in the United States is “fueling an astronomically expensive epidemic of preventable lifestyle diseases for which we are all paying” (Mark Bittman). The future–our country’s children–is in danger.
Jamie Oliver has been on a global quest to change food education for young people. His 2010 Ted Talk discusses the harsh realities of childhood obesity in America: