Is Childhood Obesity Inescapable?

Common Marmoset

With a title like this, you have to read the story: “Childhood obesity almost ‘inevitable’, say experts” (link is ours). Which experts? Could this be? Must we resign ourselves to the prospect of the ever-enlarging children?

Journalist Madeleine Brindley has been talking to people who fear this might be the case. In Wales, as in so many other places, alarming statistics keep showing up. For instance, of the children under 16 years of age, one-third are designated either overweight or obese, and one child in five is actually obese.

Brindley says,

An abundance of cheap, unhealthy food, the amount of money spent by multinational companies promoting their high-sugar and fat products, and the way the towns and cities are designed for cars have been cited as causes of the nation’s growing childhood obesity problem.

This sounds familiar: It’s the Childhood Obesity Perfect storm. In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow lists several of the factors that come together in a seemingly overwhelming combination, all contributing to the environment that breeds childhood obesity. Maybe none of them alone would have triggered the epidemic, but, acting together, they have a powerful synergy:

1) High-technology highly pleasurable food production;
2) Highly pleasurable food availability to kids;
3) Increased stress in kids and using food to cope;
4) Comfort food science and marketing;
5) Kids are less active.

How does this line up with the assessments Brindley gathered from four experts? Dr. Jerry Wales is a pediatric endocrinologist based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. He mentions the widespread availability of unhealthy food and is quoted as saying,

There are lots of mini initiatives around, some at city level, some at country level. But the question is whether they will have an effect given that the food industry spends hundreds of times more on advertising than the Government spends on prevention.

Paul Sacher is co-founder of MEND, a program concerned with child weight management. He also mentions the ready accessibility of foods that are both cheap in price and value, and are laden with sugar, fat, and salt. People drive too much and don’t walk or bike enough, and children at home are very much limited in their choices by the adults who control the food supply.

The University of Glamorgan’s Dr. Wyndham Boobier also sees the promotion and ready availability of refined and mainly starchy foods as a contributing factor, saying,

These refined foods contain high amounts of sugar which promote an insulin response and as long as we promote an insulin response, we will be promoting weight gain.

Professor Rhys Williams, who teaches clinical epidemiology at Swansea University, sees the whole structure of society as the problem, but believes the social environment can be changed. This would include more control over advertising and marketing, and the discouragement of sedentary pastimes such as computer games.

There is also mention of the “Foresight Report,” published by the British government in 2007. It predicts that by the year 2050, if present trends continue unchecked, half the United Kingdom’s women and more than half of the men will be clinically obese, and the health consequences will cost the nation £45.5 billion (close to $73 billion) per year.

Speaking of inevitability, late last year, the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (for Biological Sciences) published a report on research conducted by Yann C. Klimentidis and others, titled “Canaries in the coal mine: a cross-species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics.” This quotation is from the abstract:

Surprisingly, we find that over the past several decades, average mid-life body weights have risen among primates and rodents living in research colonies, as well as among feral rodents and domestic dogs and cats. The consistency of these findings among animals living in varying environments, suggests the intriguing possibility that the aetiology of increasing body weight may involve several as-of-yet unidentified and/or poorly understood factors (e.g. viral pathogens, epigenetic factors).

There is more to this than meets the eye. In The Scientist, Carrie Arnold comments on the report, noting that although some research has accused everything from the lack of physical activity to the flood of highly processed foods, it’s starting to look like the environment itself harbors unsuspected dangers. Arnold adds evidence gathered at the University of Alabama by statistical geneticist David Allison and a team of colleagues.

She quotes Allison as saying,

We’ve got to really open our minds to thinking about some other things…We clearly now have evidence that things outside this realm can shift the body weight distributions of an entire population.

Allison says this because his team has studied the historical and present-day weights of American animals, from Baltimore feral rats to house pets to chimpanzees in zoos, and even captive marmosets. Out of the 24 populations of animals they looked at, 23 were more likely to be obese now. These results were found even in animals where both the activity level and diet were known to be unchanged throughout the period of the study. The researchers are almost forced to conclude that factors other than poor diet and lack of exercise are at work.

Arnold writes,

Environmental toxins and viruses are at the top of Allison’s list of potential suspects. Several studies have linked endocrine disruptors such as bisphenol A (BPA) and some tin-containing compounds to increased body mass. Infections by viruses, specifically a type of the common cold-causing adenovirus, have also been linked to significantly increased body mass…

There is another point of view on Dr. Allison’s propensity to see obesity as not being the fault of the food industry. The fact that he has so often been hired by the food industry as a consultant leads to skepticism about his motives for finding the causes of the obesity epidemic in environmental factors rather than, for instance, in the lack of calorie information on menus.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Childhood obesity almost ‘inevitable’, say experts,” WalesOnline, 02/21/11
Source: “Canaries in the coal mine: a cross-species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics,” RSPB, 11/19/10
Source: “Animals are getting fatter, too,The Scientist, 11/24/10
Image by Scarygami (Gerwin Sturm), used under its Creative Commons license.


  1. Pat Hartman says:

    Thank you for writing in to Childhood Obesity News.


  1. […] for error, these 24 “data sets” of 20,000 different animals all pointed to the same trend.  Marmosets in Univ of Wisconsin labs were his first clue.  These little monkeys are getting chubby. But so […]

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