Causes of Childhood Obesity

In the 1950s, children from pre-school to high school were in much better shape. It was rare to see an overweight or obese child. In those days, a mere 10% of adults surveyed were obese. There were no national surveys of childhood obesity before 1963.

Causes of Childhood Obesity

Fast forward to the 1980s and the surveys began tracking a disturbing new trend in childhood obesity. Running parallel with that trend was an equally troubling one in adult obesity, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports:

  • Children ages 6 to 11
  • Between 1980 and 2012, the childhood obesity rate more than doubled, from 7 percent to nearly 18 percent.

  • Adolescents ages 12 to 19
  • Between 1980 and 2012, the adolescent obesity rate more than quadrupled, from 5 percent to 21 percent.

  • Adults
  • Between 1950 and 2012, the adult obesity rate more than tripled, from 10 percent to 35 percent.

    What Caused the Childhood Obesity Epidemic?

    The answer is multifaceted and complex. Children don’t live in a vacuum, so there is no single culprit to blame. They are influenced by factors such as economic conditions, family, environment, school food, peers, and even the physical size of a dinner plate.

    Economic Status

    Childhood obesity hits hardest in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods which are often devoid of regular supermarkets and broad selections of healthy foods and fresh produce. Low-budget and poverty-level families are often forced to turn to cheap fast-food restaurants, gas-station and convenience-store foods. Far from healthy, these highly processed foods not only have the least nutritional value of all foods, they contain additives that are appetite stimulators.  

    Children living below the federal household poverty level have a 27.4 percent obesity rate which is 2.7 times higher than the 10.15 percent obesity rate of children living in households where income exceeds 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

    Fast-Food Restaurants

    The rise of fast-food chains has made it irresistibly easy to have a quick meal at a reasonable price. Historically, families ate breakfast and dinner at home. That tradition has become the exception as more families have two working parents—or even worse—a single parent heading the household who works. Even if families do manage to have dinner together, it is often pizza or other fast-food meals.  

    Fast-Food Advertising

    Fast-food chains have deep pockets, so they constantly bombard children (and adults) with appealing close-ups of crispy fried chicken or juicy cheeseburgers and fries. These ads are on TV all the time, stimulating appetites and reminding viewers how cheap and easy it is to indulge their cravings.

    American children in the 21st century have developed two dangerous behaviors that are fueling the childhood obesity epidemic—lack of exercise and a sedentary lifestyle.

    School Lunch

    School cafeterias are looking more like fast-food restaurants because school districts are struggling with budget problems. Fast-food chains take advantage of the situation by offering big financial incentives for schools to add fast-food options to the menu. Economically disadvantaged students who qualify for school lunches don’t have another option. A fast-food lunch is better than no lunch.


    American children in the 21st century have developed two dangerous behaviors that are fueling the childhood obesity epidemic: lack of exercise and a sedentary lifestyle.

    • Lack of Exercise – Schools have systematically cut back or eliminated traditional P.E. classes due to budgetary problems. Most children don’t want to exercise anyway, because they’ve gotten out of the habit of riding their bikes, skateboarding, playing basketball in the park, or even going outdoors at all.  
    • Sedentary Lifestyle – Between cable TV, video games, countless iPhone apps, and social media habits, children have more reasons than ever to not move off the couch. This sedentary lifestyle leads to mindless overeating and obesity.

    Consequences of Childhood Obesity

    For the first time, our current generation of children is projected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. Obese children have major health problems just like adults. They are more prone to diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and other serious chronic diseases. Obese children often grow up to be obese adults with multiple chronic diseases destine to shorten their lives.

    A Problem for All of Us

    Parents, children, schools, and the business and medical communities need to work together to help reverse the childhood obesity trend from every conceivable angle. Children need to learn how to lose weight safely, eat healthy foods, exercise, and experience the joy of physical activities and glowing health.

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    Peter Maldonado