Childhood Obesity is an Epidemic in the USA
Childhood obesity has become an epidemic in the United States and other western industrialized societies. “Childhood obesity affects more than 18 percent of children in the United States, making it the most common chronic disease of childhood” (Obesity Action Coalition). According to the OAC, the percentage of children suffering from childhood obesity has tripled since 1980. A child is considered obese if their body mass index for their age is greater than 95 percent.
Childhood obesity is both an individual and social issue that is caused by environmental and genetic factors. The individual impact faced by childhood obesity is poor health. In the United States, obesity is the number one health problem. Childhood obesity in general leads to many health complications. If a person starts their life out obese, they are at a higher risk for chronic diseases that lead to further health complications into adulthood. Some of these chronic diseases are heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, and some types of cancer. These chronic diseases cause several other health problems that left unchecked, could lead to death. Further, obesity can lead to poor mental health and low quality of life. For children affected by obesity, depression, social discrimination, and low self esteem are also risks. The societal impact of childhood obesity are financial costs to tax payers. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, costs from 2008 for treating obesity related diseases, were estimated at $147 billion and the annual nationwide productive costs related to obesity absenteeism were estimated at 3.38 billion to 6.38 billion or $79 to $132 per individual. Environmental factors that lead to childhood obesity are closely related to lower socioeconomic status and lack of physical activity. Cheap food is the only choice of a poor person. The lack of healthy options at reasonable prices leads a person to make unhealthy choices that lead to obesity. Genetics are less likely to play a role in childhood obesity, but to some extent they do. If a child’s parent is obese, the child has a higher likelihood of becoming obese as well. Poor eating habits and lack of healthy options leads a parent to feed their child the same unhealthy diet that they consume. This poor eating becomes a vicious cycle in the family. The low quality foods available at low prices are sugar dense, sugar is addictive. When a family consumes large amounts of sugar and continue to feed their children large amounts of sugar, the next generation is at a higher risk to continue the unhealthy eating habits that cause childhood obesity that lasts throughout adulthood. The lack of physical activity associated with obese families is another factor that leads to the continuation of obesity in future generations.
Harrison’s assessment of childhood obesity is that school lunches and physical activities have become less in recent years. “Another feature of an obesogenic environment is that children, particularly in the United States, are also thought to have limited access to nutritious dietary options in schools” (Harrison, 2012:329). Obesogenic environmental factors leading to an obesogenic environment include diminishing access to healthy foods, the increased use of technology, the decreased rate of physical activity, and working more hours. Children in the United States who are of a lower socioeconomic status either are unable to afford food and are under-fed or are able to only afford very cheap options such as the quick, easy, and cheap drive through. Children who have no healthy options such as fresh organic produce, are left with high caloric and sugar rich foods that cause rapid weight gain. A family can go through a drive through and feed a family of four for less than $10.00 whereas healthier options cost far more to feed the same size family. The food choices at fast food restaurants are not nutrient dense, they lack the nutrient value needed to maintain a healthy weight.
Parallel to the lack of healthy options affordable to lower socioeconomic families, these families also lack quality education and health care. When it comes to healthcare and education, families of lower socioeconomic status would be able to maintain healthier body weight with regular visits to health care practitioners. Under funded school lunch programs have been overtaken by large corporations that are becoming more in control of what children consume in schools. “The flipside of this business largesse is that successful efforts to wean Americans from their dependency on too many calories and too little exercise would spell doom for these multiple industries that hope to continue growing along with the nation’s collective girth” (Weis, 2005). School lunch options are provided by private owned for profit companies. With less financial resources, the lower socioeconomic status families are unable to obtain the healthy foods needed to maintain a healthy weight. These families also lack the physical activity needed to lose the weight inflicted by poor nutrition. According to Weis and Harrison, the lack of resources such as the finances needed to obtain healthy dietary options, education, health care, and physical activities have a great impact on families from low socioeconomic backgrounds that lead these families to become obese, which ultimately leads to childhood obesity.
The upper class capitalists are profiting off the obesity of children. Conflict theory can assist with understanding childhood obesity. Although children from all socioeconomic backgrounds can be impacted by childhood obesity, it is more likely that children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are at a higher risk. Conflict theory can be used to understand the conflict associated with private owned for profit companies in charge of most of the United States public school lunches. With school lunches becoming more unhealthy and children becoming more obese, the conflict arises. To right the ship, the capitalists would need to take a large financial hit, one they are not willing to take regardless of the severe health risks associated with childhood obesity.
Karl Marx focuses on social class and how it has a direct influence on an individuals life choices and life experiences. This can be applied to childhood obesity in children from lower socioeconomic families. Due to an individuals position in life, especially a lower socioeconomic position, children are at a higher risk of becoming obese. When a child is under nourished due to a lack of resources, they are at a higher risk of becoming obese. Marx believed that those from lower socioeconomic status experienced hardships, while those from a higher socioeconomic status enjoyed a privileged life. Marx argued that capitalism is the cause of separation of classes. “For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent then as the only rational, universally valid ones” (Longhofer and Winchester, 2016:134). The upper class, those who have the money and control the resources, live a privileged life, one that allows for healthy dietary options and a healthy weight and those who live in poverty live a harder life, one that lacks healthy dietary options and leads to an unhealthy weight. Conflict theory proposes that there is inequality between individuals and groups within society that have conflicting interests. “This circumstance leads to a third proposition of conflict theory, which states that societal conflict occurs between dominant and subordinate social groups that are in competition with one another over resources” (Palmisano, 2001). According to Marx, the two classes in a capitalist society are the bourgeoisie (upper class) and the proletariat (lower class). The bourgeoisie own and control the power, resources, and means of production. The proletariat are the working class and provide the labor. The proletariat are controlled by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie and proletariat are in constant competition for resources and power.
The United States is a capitalist society with upper class (privileged) and lower class (disadvantaged). In a capitalist society, people with more money (upper class) are able to afford a more nutritious diet that leads to a healthy weight, whereas people with less money (lower class) are unable to afford a nutritious diet and eat what is available at their price point, this unfortunately leads obesity. Obesity can cause severe health complications and therefore it is a social problem. The complications to health due to childhood obesity are also related to conflict theory because the lower socioeconomic class is separated from the resources needed to obtain health care.
In order to treat and prevent childhood obesity in western industrialized societies, transparency would need to ensue. Companies should have to be honest when labeling and marketing foods. If society were more educated on the impact of the foods they consume, they would be able to make better decisions about their diet. Healthy options should also be more affordable. This is why I used conflict theory to describe childhood obesity, large capitalist companies are able to charge less for their garbage food that leads to obesity and causes chronic health issues all the while mislabeling these products and claiming some health benefits. Without the necessary resources, lower socioeconomic families are unable to decipher what the healthier option is and if they are able to, they are unable to afford it.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018. Adult Obesity Causes & Consequences. CDC 24/7: Saving Lives, Protecting People. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/adult/causes.html
- Harrison, Elizabeth. 2012. The Body Economic: The Case of ‘Childhood Obesity’. York
- University, Canada: Feminism & Psychology. 22(3) 324-343
- Longhofer, Wesley., Winchester, Daniel. 2016. Social Theory Re-Wired: New Connections to Classical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Routledge
- Obesity Action Coalition. Understanding Childhood Obesity: What is Childhood Obesity. https://www.obesityaction.org/get-educated/understanding-childhood- obesity/what-is-childhood-obesity/. Retrieved 26, Nov. 2018.
- Weis, William L., 2005. When the Forces of Industry Conflict with the Public Health: The Case of Obesity. Seattle University.