The Childhood Obesity Perfect Storm

impending storms

“Perfect storm” is a term that has been around since at least the 1930s. A perfect storm is what happens when a number of powerful factors concur in such a way that a disastrous or critical situation is created. No single one of them alone would have had such a destructive effect, but the synergy of their all acting together has proved devastating. Dr. Pretlow identifies at least five elements of the perfect storm that has produced the current epidemic of childhood obesity.

One of these is the use of advanced technology in the invention and manufacture of highly pleasurable foods or almost-foods, the kind that kids most often name as the problem foods to which they perceive themselves to be addicted. A perfect example is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which seems to act differently in the body than other forms of sugar. Why? Maybe because it comes from genetically modified corn.

When HFCS is absorbed into an organism, it seems to deliver a message that goes, “More! Bigger! Consume mass quantities!” For instance, lab rats get fatter on HFCS than from the same caloric intake of regular sugar. Princeton University researchers say so. Apparently, HFCS does something to the inner mechanism that tells us whether or not we’re hungry, and pancreatic tumor cells thrive on the stuff.

Now, this might seem like an abrupt change of topic, but stay with us, and you’ll see the possible connection to the spread of childhood obesity. At NPR, you can listen to or read a story by Sabri Ben-Achour, titled “The Tiny Ant That’s Taking On The Big City.” A variety of ant called Tapinoma sessile has invaded the entire city blocks. The giant colonies, thousands of times larger than colonies found in nature, are driving homeowners and apartment-dwellers crazy.

It’s all about phenotypic plasticity, as Ben-Achour learned from talking with Sean Menke of North Carolina State University, who explained that the ant’s DNA holds a “time bomb,” namely, the ability to develop new traits as an adaptation to a new environment. The journalist goes on,

Given the right conditions — which, it turns out, don’t occur very commonly in nature — it can change its behavior and form these massive supercolonies. Menke says it’s a result of knocking down the forests and grasslands and replacing them with whole new environments. ‘You start out with zero species in there. The first thing that gets in has no parasites, no predators, no competitors.’ That’s one possibility. The other is that ‘we’ve just made a buffet table for them,’ Menke says. In nature, the ants don’t come across high fructose corn syrup too often, or sheltered basements with year-round heating.

So, there you have it. Technology is loading us up with stuff that’s never been eaten before, in conditions that have never existed before, and it looks like this whole area of inquiry needs a good, hard look.

We will have more to say about the perfect storm, but, to get an overview, please consult Dr. Pretlow’s presentation, “Why Are Children Overweight?” It was created for the Royal College of Physicians National Obesity Forum, which took him to London not long ago. (The part about the perfect storm starts with Slide 42.)

Dr. Pretlow Gets Around:

London isn’t the only place where Dr. Pretlow has gone lately to spread the word. Every year, the Obesity Society stages a major event for obesity professionals, and this year it was in San Diego, California. It is “a forum for increasing knowledge, stimulating research, and promoting better treatment for those affected by this disease.” There are speakers, of course, and an additional number of health care providers are invited to bring posters. These graphic teaching aids are hung along a hallway, where the attendees can absorb the information in them and exchange ideas with their originators. Here is Dr. Pretlow’s poster, “Food Addiction in Children” (PDF).

Just a few days ago, “Obesity: the Epidemic and What We Can Do About It as Community Leaders” was the title of a talk that keynote speaker Dr. Pretlow gave to the Women’s Sports Foundation in the state of Washington. It was a special event called the GoGirlGo! Leadership Institute. Dr. Pretlow says,

I was delighted that they include many of the self-esteem building, stress relieving activities in their program, which I recommended for overweight kids in my talk. Also, they embraced the food addiction concept. They want to reach out to sad, isolated obese kids. I was thrilled. They shook their heads when I showed the ‘Hope’ Happy Meals commercial, as well as the Blizzard cup with the ‘I’m a Candy Craver’ on it. It was a good group.

And thanks, Matthew Ewy, for the kind words about Childhood Obesity news, found at Matthew’s Blog of Important Stuff. Glad to be of service.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Tiny Ant That’s Taking On The Big City,” NPR, 11/03/10
Source: “Why Are Children Overweight?,”
Image by paul (dex), used under its Creative Commons license.

2 Responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FAQs and Media Requests: Click here…

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources