Politician’s Folly and the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

Posted: September 2, 2010 in Misuse of Science
Tags: ,

            Face it, Americans are fat.  The U. S. government says that two out of every three adult Americans are clinically either overweight or obese.

            The statistics for children are no less frightening and point to a growing obesity epidemic.  Childhood obesity has garnered much national attention, especially within the educational system.  For decades, conventional wisdom has been: “We need to increase physical activity among our students to combat this epidemic.”  Using this paradigm as the impetus, billions and billions have been spent at the local, state and federal level on a menagerie of school programs. It was never grounded in science.  At best, it was grounded in bad science—a politician’s folly.

            I always wondered if perhaps we had it all backwards.  Perhaps children are not getting fatter because of a lack of physical activity.  Perhaps, I often asked myself and my colleagues, children are inactive because they are fat.  Well, finally, someone asked the right questions and did the science.  It seems I had it right all along.

            According to a recent report, published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood , the answer is now clear.  As it turns out, physical activity, has little or no role in the obesity epidemic among children.  This milestone, longitudinal study involving thousands of children asked: which comes first? Does the physical activity of children precede changes in fatness over time, or does fatness precede changes in physical activity?   It turns out that it is the latter.  The methodology, data collection, and analysis are flawless.   Of course, this answer flies in the face of fallacious popular knowledge. Year after year, politicians just blindly threw money at programs that were demonstrably a failure.

            Yet, children are forced to participate in physical education classes all over the country.  I have no problem with such classes, so long as they are electives and thus largely made up of children who want to participate.  School districts nationwide have even pinned physical education classes to high school graduation requirements.  Will they continue to do so?  Probably.  There is just too much inertia in the public school system to stop programs with so much history and so many vested interest groups. 

            In a better world, where educational programs are grounded in real science, children with little interest in physical education might have the option to use that hour each day on something they have an interest in and might actually enjoy.  Maybe they (or their parents ultimately), would prefer an hour each day spent in a music or art class?  Maybe an extra hour each day devoted to mental or academic enrichment activities– geared toward the interests of students– could be entertained?   Is this too utopian?  Or does it just make too much sense to be incorporated into public school curriculums?

            Now, with regard to this obesity epidemic, it has been clear for many years now that the path to obesity starts long before children even begin school.  Sometimes, the stage is even set prior to birth.  The evidence is overwhelming that the first few years of life seem to be the most important in establishing a trajectory for obesity.  Early feeding errors, including, but not limited to, premature truncation of breast feeding are the obvious problems. It could be argued that this is the price we have to pay for a society in which women sidestep their biological predispositions in order to enter the workforce.  The health costs associated with obesity could very well bankrupt us and may turn out to be the single most important issue in our future.  I am not advocating a society in which women are relegated to their biological role as child rearers. But we cannot afford to ignore our biology.  The technological revolution is what got us into this quagmire and it most certainly could help to provide a solution.  If just a tiny proportion of the wasted billions that have been funneled into misguided physical education programs were used to research the real causes of the obesity epidemic then perhaps a solution would be forthcoming.

Jim Hatem

B. S. Metcalf, J. Hosking, A. N. Jeffery, L. D. Voss, W. Henley, T. J. Wilkin. Fatness leads to inactivity, but inactivity does not lead to fatness: a longitudinal study in children (EarlyBird 45). Archives of Disease in Childhood, 2010; DOI: 10.1136/adc.2009.175927

For CDC statistics on the number of Americans who are overweight or obese see:

http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/overweight/overweight_adult.htm

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Comments
  1. Rafael Betita says:

    Finally, someone stands up for the fat kids who don’t want to do PE!

  2. Ali says:

    The fun begins!

    PS– Totally agree.

  3. Yair says:

    Third!!!

    Anyway I completely agree with you hatem. Physical education is great as long as it is wanted by kids and not forced onto them. It was forced because wrong science proved other wise. Besides I don’t know much about it. But have you seen the crap they feed school children for 18 years of their lives??? And most of the kids that’s all the food they eat. I always felt like I was back in the 1940’s with those meals…

    Great job hatem! Kudos to you!

  4. Trevor says:

    Do a post about why humans haven’t made any species extinct (including the dodo), and instead “saved” many species from extinction.

  5. Autumn C. says:

    So glad that you typed this up. Hopefully, I can show the links provided to the school I work at so they’ll stop forcing kids to run laps in 100 degree weather because it’s “good for them”.

    • Autumn, exercise is generally a good thing. That is not my argument. The whole point here is that there is no science to back up any claim that a lack of physical activity has anything to do with the childhood obesity epidemic. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada!

  6. Sam Kim says:

    The paper you cited somehow doesn’t list dietary changes in the United States as a possible cause for childhood obesity. I know far too many kids who barely get any physical exercise whatsoever (I was one, due to chronic asthma and other severe allergies) yet manage to keep their BMI at a healthy level.

    I hear stories about Westerners who effortlessly lose weight while living in Japan without consciously making any major lifestyle choices, simply because the food there is lower in calories and because portion sizes are much smaller. Of course, mere anecdotal evidence isn’t good for anything, but I would like to see some studies on pubmed

    • Sam Kim says:

      (cont).

      elaborating further on the issue.

      Japanese-Americans are significantly heavier than Japanese, several dietary differences cited:
      http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/reprint/53/6/1552S.pdf

      Possible economic explanations for the lower obesity rate in Japan:
      http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/14321/1/tr06-02.pdf

      That last paper notes that calorie availability (per unit of income) has increased significantly in the U.S. since the 1960s, while it has increased only slightly in Japan. We know restaurants everywhere in this country have significantly increased portion sizes since the 1950s. The temptation too overeat may be too strong to resist for certain individuals.

      • Sam, all valid points and I agree but they have NOTHING to do with my point. Kids are inactive in school because they are fat, not vice verse. Establishing costly physical education programs in the schools to combat the childhood obesity epidemic is not grounded in science. It never was. Read the original paper. All other things being equal, the kids put on a vigorous physical activity regimen for several years showed no significant loss of fat compared to those on a sedentary regimen. ALL of the scientific evidence points to feeding mistakes in the first few years of life, when fat cells are formed for life, as the culprit.

  7. Sam Kim says:

    Maybe if Americans want to be fatass gluttons and eat everything in sight without any regard for their long-term health, the government should step out of the way and just let them do it. Of course, obese individuals tend to overburden our health care system, but every single government program to curb this trend has failed spectacularly. Governments are never particularly good at social engineering (or at much else, for that matter).

  8. Mary T says:

    Inactivity because of fatness makes so much more sense.
    Besides breast feeding less than needed, what are some of the other major early feeding errors? And is it the formula that replaces breast feeding fattening or does the act of breast feeding in itself promote healthy baby weight?…..I guess that is one of the things they could be researching with those billions..

    • Mary,

      Nearly all of your fat cells are formed during the first few years of life. You can only make these bigger or smaller as you age and store energy. The more fat cells you make during those formative years the more predisposed you are to obesity. Evolution has biologically hard-wired us to fill these cells with fat so the more you have the more your total body fat goes up. Remember, for 99% of human existence we lived in a feast or famine mode. We feasted when food was available because the next meal was never assured. We evolved a system to store as much of the excess calories as possible in our fat cells. Nowadays, the next meal is as close as the nearest refrigerator or convenience store. The point is to not have so many fat cells to begin with because people with an excess number created early in life always have an insatiable urge to eat calorie dense foods to fill those cells.
      It is physically impossible to accumulate an excess of these cells if you are breast fed in the manner in which our biology dictates. Too many mothers truncate this process early. Baby formulas are a remarkable innovation but if used improperly, the child is doomed. What’s more, the urge to ween a child too early and substitute the normal liquid diet with calorie dense foods is likewise a formula for disaster. There is really not much more to it than that.

  9. Minnie says:

    And once again, we learn about how much the government wastes our money…

    “It seems I had it right all along.”

    Was there any doubt? 😛 Nice read and it’s been a while, Mr. Hatem~

  10. der6454 says:

    Ok so where’s the science here? Calories in > calories out = fat stored. Simple.
    Your main point is that when women don’t breast feed, this contributes to obesity in children? Wow Hatem, your brilliance is only outshined by your arrogance.

    • To der6454:

      Don’t really understand how my pointing out that early childhood feeding errors are linked to subsequent obesity makes me arrogant. Sorry to point out that one of these errors is early termination of breastfeeding. The fact remains that it is just about impossible to produce an overweight breast fed infant. The evidence for this and the link to subsequent obesity is overwhelming. Sorry it falls in the scientific realm but science is what I deal in. I read medical journals almost daily. Maybe you can take some time and check out these references. There are hundreds of others but these should keep you busy for awhile.

      Owen CG, et al. Effect of infant feeding on the risk of obesity across the life course; a quantitative review of published evidence. Pediatrics 2005;115:1367-1377.

      Arenz S, et al. Breastfeeding and childood obesity – a systematic review. Int J Obesity 2004;28:1247-1256.

      Harder T, et al. Duration of breastfeeding and risk of overweight: a meta-analysis. Am J Epidemiol. 2005;162(5):397-403.

      Dietz WH. Breastfeeding may help prevent childhood overweight. JAMA 2001;285:2506-2507.

      Dewey KG. Is breastfeeding protective against childhood obesity? J Hum Lact 2003;19:9-18.

      You may think I am arrogant (for reasons unknown) but now you have demonstrated yourself to be a fool.

  11. jendo321 says:

    I remember you telling us about the way cells differentiate into fat cells early in life and how important it is to not overfeed babies. That was over ten years ago. Hatem, you were way ahead of your time. I am not surprised.

  12. Anna Qin says:

    way to go hatem!

  13. a_engr1948 says:

    This is great stuff. My wife, a pediatrician, has been preaching this for as long as I can remember.

  14. igneous1 says:

    I am sure glad we made the right feeding choices when our three children were infants. This research is very enlightening.

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