Childhood obesity is no laughing matter

Originally published in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza (link), February 14, 2011. Although I consider myself an optimist, there's one medical topic I find it hard to be hopeful about: childhood obesity. Once fodder for easy jokes, obese children are anything but a laughing matter. Several billion dollars are spent each year treating children for diseases once confined to adults: diabetes, heart disease, back problems, sleep apnea. Even sadder, many children will have to endure the physical and emotional consequences of obesity throughout their lives.

What's most difficult is that although society is increasingly educated about the issue, the causes seem too entrenched for anyone to tackle. That's hard to believe, as this epidemic is so recent. Thirty years ago, obese children were rare exceptions. What's changed?

It's nice to say kids just need to eat less and exercise more. Although this is part of the problem, it's facile and misses the truth: kids aren't eating many more calories per day than they were thirty years ago. Really. The big change has been in what we eat, not how much.

We've been duped into believing that sugary fruit and energy drinks and coffee milkshakes are healthy, leading us to drink more calories. They're not healthy. Unfortunately, children who drink a single sweetened beverage a day double their risk of obesity and diabetes. If a doctor gave a child that much sugar we would call it a glucose tolerance test, and we'd be trying to overwhelm their insulin system to test for diabetes.

We eat outside the home more, and restaurant foods are high in fat and cheap refined carbohydrates. The few fruits and vegetables we eat are reduced to nutritional worthlessness, and meat is usually processed keeping costs down, while increasing fat content and reducing healthy protein to a minimum.

When meals are consumed at home, it's often grab and go, with refined carbohydrates and corn-based foods taking center stage. Gone are the days of the family meal with stern requirements to “eat your vegetables.”

Activity is certainly lower. We live tied to electronic devices that amuse our brains, but not our bodies. Gym classes are gone and we live in a society increasingly distanced from the need to move as part of daily routine. Exercise used to happen naturally, but now we need to set aside time in out busy schedules to “just do it.”

A true solution will take major change in what we subsidize and advertise as food and how we move and behave. Even how we think about health as a long-term goal to feel and function well, not just fit into a smaller pair of jeans.

Until then, we can only address this issue one child at a time. For children to change their eating and behavior, the entire family needs to change. Sugary beverages have to go. More meals and snacks need to be focused on real food — fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins with less processing. It's hard and expensive, but being obese and sick is hard and expensive, too.

I hope that as people make changes and feel a difference they will tell others and the idea will spread until the demand for better options grows. Until then, please feed your children, and yourself, as if your bodies need to last a lifetime. They do.

— Dr. Rebecca Gelber is an Incline Village resident and graduate of The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She is an adjunct professor with the UNR School of Medicine and practices locally at Tahoe Aesthetic and Integrative Medicine, 775-298-1750, www.tahoemedicalspa.com.