The Obesity Epidemic - To the Heart of the Matter: The Experts Weigh in on the Causes of Childhood Obesity
An Interview with Bob Rice, M.A., and Aki Morita, Ph.D.
By Meghan Vivo
What’s behind the childhood obesity epidemic? The explosion of fast food chains, laziness, genetics, food addiction? There is no simple answer. The only fact the experts can agree on is that obesity is a complex public health issue that is caused by a confluence of physiological, emotional, cultural, and behavioral factors.
In order to understand the roots of this epidemic, we spoke with licensed therapists, Bob Rice, M.A., and Aki Morita, Ph.D., from Wellspring Academy in California, one of the nation’s most effective weight loss programs for children and adolescents. Each of these therapists has made it their life’s work to help overweight and obese individuals overcome the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that lead to excess weight. In their professional opinions, the following are some of the most common causes of overeating that lead young people to Wellspring.
Every person is born with certain genetic predispositions. Some people have “apple” or “pear” body shapes, some have a sweet tooth, some crave salt. “Our hunter-gatherer history explains evolutionarily why the world needs people with different genetic make-ups – we’re created differently because we all fulfill different roles,” explains Rice. “Differentiation makes the human population stronger.”
According to Rice, the obesity epidemic has led us back to the famous question of nature versus nurture versus events. “Certainly, all three play a role, but you have to start with an understanding that there is a huge genetic component,” Rice advises.
At Wellspring, many students have a family history of weight issues, caused by both biological predispositions and poor lifestyle and habits, adds Morita. “While we can’t change genetics, biology is only part of the picture,” she says. “We have made huge strides in reversing bad habits and instilling long-term lifestyle changes. There’s no better time to address weight issues than when people are young and not too set in their ways.”
Obesity certainly has a genetic component, but lifestyle and upbringing play an even bigger role. Even though our bodies are made to stay active hunting and gathering all day, we live in a very different environment than did our ancestors. Kids spend all day at school, where there is little emphasis on physical education or outdoor recreation, and then come home to television, video games, and deskbound study time.
The latest “addiction” of concern to parents and public health officials is computer and video game addiction. As technology advances and the world becomes a more dangerous place for children, yesterday’s popular after-school activities like playing in the cul-de-sac or exploring in the woods have given way to television and video games.
“Parents set the model for their children,” explains Morita. “Because time is more precious than ever, parents drive everywhere instead of walking and rarely make time to exercise. This lifestyle of inactivity trickles down to the next generation, with many teens driving two minutes to the park or grocery store rather than taking a short walk.”
Fast Food Culture
As parents work harder and longer than ever before, restaurant and fast food dinners have replaced healthy, home-cooked meals. Sodas and sugar-laden juices have replaced water, and schools serve pizza and burgers for a fraction of the cost of balanced, nutrient-dense meals.
“As a society, we have created an environment that enables food addiction – fast food on every corner, heavy marketing of all types of junk food, using food as entertainment,” says Morita. “This ‘comfort food culture’ spreads into individual homes and families and before you know it, we’re facing an obesity epidemic.”
America’s fast food culture has made high-fat, caloric foods available to individuals of every background, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Although people in poorer areas may not even have a major grocery chain nearby or access to fresh fruits and vegetables, the fast food industry has ensured that everyone can have access to processed burgers and fries.
“The movement toward globalization has led companies, fast food and otherwise, to reach out to larger, more diverse groups of people,” Rice states. “At the same time, the fast food industry continues to find more ways to manufacture bigger sizes at lower costs, maximizing corporate profits and spreading disease throughout the world.”
Psychological and Behavioral Issues
For some teens, the issue is relatively simple: They eat because they’re bored. Their parents are working, their siblings are fixated on the computer or television, and eating seems like the easiest, cheapest way to be entertained.
“The goods news in these situations is that students can make quick progress once they learn healthier ways to cope with boredom and other emotions,” says Morita. “In a structured, controlled environment, it is our job to get them interested in sports, physical activities, art, music, or any of the other wonderful options available to them. When teens are busy living their lives, hanging out with friends, and playing outside, they won’t even realize they’re doing the work to lose weight.”
In other cases, the emotional or behavioral issues are more complicated. “At Wellspring, we see a lot of kids with psychological issues ranging from depression to learning disorders to psychiatric issues that manifest in weight problems,” Rice notes. “These teens really need our help. Losing weight is hard enough on its own; it’s a much bigger challenge to address both eating issues and psychological issues at the same time.”
Working Toward a Brighter Future
Recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest the obesity epidemic showed signs of leveling off between 1999 and 2006, after decades of steady increases. Although any progress is better than no progress, according to Rice, the slowdown has resulted, at least in part, from the fast food industry reaching its saturation point.
“At some point, every industry reaches a point when it has attracted all the customers it can grasp,” he says. “Millions of people can avoid fast food altogether, and many are as hooked on junk food as they can be. Better news would be progress in treating the 9 million children who are already overweight.”
“Like most adults, many teens don’t understand why they have eating issues,” says Morita. “Through educational classes and therapy sessions, Wellspring students become aware of the reasons behind their behaviors and identify healthy ways to make lasting lifestyle changes.”
Wellspring’s camps and academies were designed by leading researchers and clinicians to maximize sustainable weight loss for children and adolescents. With programs like Wellspring and increasing awareness on the part of the U.S. government and public health organizations, there is hope that more American youths will take action now to avoid being a statistic tomorrow.