In the United States, obesity has been an increasingly critical health problem, and has also been noticed worldwide. A study conducted in 2012 by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that obesity is one of the leading causes of death in adults in the United States, falling only to heart disease, but due to the rapidly growing rate, it is predicted to move its way to first place.
Over the past thirty years, obesity has nearly tripled in children two to five years of age and youth ages twelve to nineteen years of age. It has quadrupled for children ages six to eleven years. One in five of the nation’s youth has already been diagnosed with obesity according to their body mass index of above the ninety-five percentile. African American or Hispanic children, or children from low-income households/neighborhoods are at almost twice the risk for childhood obesity.
Studies have shown that overweight children and adolescents may experience health conditions associated with increased weights include asthma, sleep apnea, high blood pressure or cholesterol, and type two diabetes mellitus. Obesity may also put children at long-term higher risk for chronic conditions like strokes, various cancers, musculoskeletal disorders, and gall bladder disease. Childhood today is very different from childhood twenty years ago. Children now are more susceptible to a poorer quality of life due to illness, low self-esteem, and low energy.
Many factors have been identified as possible causes for the obesity epidemic including reduced physical education at school, increased homework loads, televisions, portions that are too large, video games, and many others. Many schools in lower-income areas do not have enough money for playgrounds, so recess has been scratched completely from the school day schedules.
Also, children are not as encouraged to join sports teams anymore because they have other options like after school indoor clubs, or realizing that they cannot juggle a sport and the increasing amounts of homework given in school. Homework has contributed to weight gain and lack of physical activity because children are spending more time trying to finish homework rather than going outside to play.
Homework is a crucial part of school because it is graded and is helps the students with learning materials. Parents usually make their children finish their homework before doing anything fun, so if a child has four hours of homework after school, that already puts the child at finish time around dinner, then must bathe and go to bed for the next day. If it is dark out when the child finishes homework, it is more likely that they will not go outside and they will resort to watching television or playing video games as their leisure time that day.
Environmental factors such as lack of access to healthy foods and poverty can contribute to obesity. Twenty-three million Americans live in food deserts: rural towns or urban neighborhoods without ready access to affordable healthy food (USDA, n.d). Within these areas, the only places to buy food are fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. These places only sell processed, sugar packed, fatty products. Frequent consumption of foods that consist of high calorie and low nutrient intake may lead to weight gain. In addition to a lack of access to healthy foods, working parents spending long hours away from home at one or multiple jobs have little time to prepare meals at home. This makes it harder to establish the routine of sitting down for a healthy family meal. The simple action of sitting down for dinner creates a positive idea about food for children.
Children nowadays are saturated with technology and the presence of media. According to the American Psychological Association study done in 2004, children spend 44.5 hours a week in front of electronic screens. When children are watching this much television, they are not only moving less, they are more exposed to the media’s messages.
Youth are more commonly exposed to more marketing and advertising for obesity-promoting products that encourage consumption of unhealthy foods and discouraging physical activity. 0% of ads broadcast on children’s networks are for fruit and vegetables, while 34% of the ads are for candy and snacks (APA, n.d.-a). Children are more susceptible to wanting these items if they are shown during their favorite shows, or if their favorite people like celebrities or characters are promoting the items. Although it seems as if parents should shame television and media, they are not the only ones to blame for childhood obesity.
Children are exposed to all kinds of marketing materials by ads on buses, in gymnasiums, on books or magazines, and in bathrooms. This marketing is exploitative, as children under the age of eight do not understand the persuasive intent of ads, and those under the age of six cannot even distinguish between programming and commercials (APA, 2004). Simply viewing an ad once can create a preference for a child, impacting what the child will ask his or her parents to purchase (Harris, Bargh, Brownell, 2009).
One positive change can cause a chain reaction. Many of the nation’s children are stuck in the vicious cycle that is steering them towards a future with obesity, and it is absolutely disheartening. Psychology allows us to recognize that the cycle contains a solution that the factors causing obesity can be stopped in the future.