Obesity epidemic weighs heavy on children

by Stacey Oparnica

 rob piper, staff artist
Rob Piper, staff artist

We live in a nation where there’s always a little more stomach room for a side of fries, yet no time to spare for a little outdoor activity. We spend more time on our couch than on the treadmill, and more time Facebook stalking than hiking or jogging. Jack in the Box always manages to satisfy our cravings for cheap, processed food in the form of questionable, albeit delicious, chicken sandwiches, and it’s never more than a five-minute drive away.

Combining all these factors with a severe lack of nutritional knowledge, I’m surprised every one of us hasn’t “keeled over” from a caloric overdose. Even more alarming than the thought of adults making these lifestyle choices is the thought of children being subjected to them.

When I was in elementary school, I had no say in how my parents went about grocery shopping. My diet, and consequently my health, was entirely in their hands. Had I expressed any interest in nutrition, I’m sure they would have been more than happy to educate me. However, regulating my saturated fat intake wasn’t exactly high on my list of concerns at the age of 7. Neither was childhood obesity.

But waistlines continue increasing, and those struggling with weight are getting younger and younger. In 2008, more than one-third of children and adolescents were either overweight or obese, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association and the National Center for Health Statistics.

While the aforementioned issues, such as a poor diet and lack of proper exercise, are undoubtedly the primary contributors driving this epidemic, there is one factor we haven’t yet touched upon: location, specifically low-income communities. New San Diego State research focusing on 32 neighborhoods in Washington and Maryland reveals residents in low-income neighborhoods do not typically have adequate access to parks, recreation areas or healthy food stores, thus leading to higher rates of obesity.

“There were fewer sidewalks, street crossings were less safe and aesthetics were poorer, so it was less safe and pleasant to be active outdoors,” Jim Sallis director of SDSU’s Active Living Research program, said in an article on SDSU News Center. In addition, poorer communities tend to have higher rates of crime, making the thought of going for an evening jog or a casual stroll much more unappealing.

Further articles and studies reiterate the same conclusion: We cannot keep ignoring these low-income neighborhoods. Through the implementation of new aggressive and proactive policies, a number of changes can be made. Establishing legislation aimed at creating safe routes to and from schools, educating students on nutrition and providing residents with affordable, healthy food options are all imperative steps.

However, we cannot stop there. Without a series of long-term measures, we will merely have created a temporary fix. Rebuilding these tattered neighborhoods and strengthening policing strategies to reduce criminal activity are admirable goals worth setting. I realize such a project would be neither easy or cheap, but considering we racked up $147 billion in obesity-related medical care in 2008, it doesn’t make much sense to ignore one of the major causes of this epidemic any longer.

If you want to see change, if you want to see a reduction in health care costs, these are the issues we have to address and these are the steps we have to take. We know the causes of childhood obesity. While some of us can afford to make simple lifestyle changes to combat this such as choosing to purchase healthy, local produce and exercising regularly, others simply don’t have the luxury of choosing. If we don’t step in quickly, sluggish and obese 6-year-olds will become a frightening norm.


— Stacey Oparnica is a journalism junior.