December 28 2010

The Passion of the Obesity Deniers

Julie Gunlock

I wholeheartedly agree with one thing Fred Hiatt has to say in his Washington Post editorial about the childhood obesity debate: It is indeed puzzling to see how passionate (and angry) people are about this issue. Equally perplexing though is just why so many people - mainly those on the Left - see the solution to childhood obesity (as Hiatt does) in greater government involvement.

Hiatt is buying into Michelle Obama's rhetoric when he says "obesity is a genuine health emergency." But this simply isn't so. According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity rates for children haven't budged in over ten years. The numbers have remained static for women too. And for men, the number has remained level for five years.

Hiatt also echoes the first lady's warnings that fat Americans are all going to keel over from obesity-related diseases. This also doesn't pan out. More recent research on obesity has found only a very slight (and statistically insignificant) increase in mortality among mildly obese people, and that in fact it is underweight individuals who have a higher rate of death than those in the "healthy" weight category.

But the real crux of Hiatt's piece is to call into question the "obesity deniers" whom he says history will judge harshly (alongside global warming deniers, natch). He asks: Could anyone really be against children eating healthier food and getting more exercise?

Hiatt shouldn't stoop so low as to question these so-called deniers' motivations. We're not some sort of anti-kid cabal set on ridding the world of these loud, sticky creatures. Instead, those who have been critical of the first lady's mission simply question the efficacy of school lunches and are concerned about the decreasing role of parents in a child's life. These "deniers" also see this effort to provide children more nutritious school meals as only treating the symptoms of childhood obesity, not the disease. In other words, Americans have to tackle the much bigger issue of just why so many children rely on these school lunches and why parents are so willing to cede this responsibility to the government.

Everyone seems to be looking for that magic bullet - the thing that will finally solve the problem of obesity in this country. For Michelle Obama, it is healthy school lunches, for New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, it's salt and trans-fat bans, for others it's soda taxes and sugar bans. Still others think increasing physical education in schools is the key. While all of these may make a small dent in the problem, none fully address the real problem in this country: poor parenting.

This year, Ohio State University released a major study on childhood obesity. The study revealed that only three activities help reduce childhood obesity: eating dinner at home with your family, watching less television, and getting enough sleep at night. These are all basic parental responsibilities. Given this research, Hiatt might stop scratching his head about obesity deniers and start asking just why parents are letting their kids eat unhealthy school lunches. He might examine why parents are allowing their children to stay up too late and why parents can't seem to control their children's consumption of television and video games.

Strong parenting is a guaranteed way to reduce childhood obesity. It costs the American taxpayer nothing. Perhaps we should give that method a try before we turn to a government solution.

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