TCS Daily

It's a Family Affair

By Roger Bate - January 26, 2004 12:00 AM

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Policy responses to obesity can only address a very small part of the problem, the public part. And by focussing attention on that public part, they may divert attention from the real problem, which is that individuals and parents need to take responsibility for their and their children's expanding waistlines.

Earlier this month at Florida State University's Center for Education Innovation, experts discussed various aspects of the problem of increasing obesity, and especially childhood obesity: definitions of obesity and how they mislead; increases in caloric intake; alterations in diet (especially school meals) from more complex carbohydrates to simpler sugars; lack of exercise; and a more sedentary existence were all mulled over.

Recent academic proceedings and papers published by the Mayo Clinic and in journals like Experimental Biology, have noted that, although diet has changed in the past two decades caloric intake in adolescents has not increased much (1% perhaps). However, exercise has decreased by 13% in the same age group. Furthermore, few children walk to school anymore so even low-effort exercise, vital for fat burning, has virtually collapsed. The situation on exercise is even worse for adults, with over 40% of Americans not engaging in even minimal leisure time physical activity.

What these data indicate is that caloric intake is not the prime problem -- either it's all the refined sugar somehow leading to greater obesity or, far more likely, it's the lack of exercise.

The speakers at the FSU event all, more or less, acknowledged these facts, but then proceeded to discuss methods to address just the first part -- how to improve diet. There are undoubtedly implicit problems with high sugar diets. These problems should be tackled, and given the focus of the FSU event, school meals were discussed at length.

Jim Warford, Elected Superintendent of Public Schools for Marion County, Ocala, Florida, said that the quality of school meals had increased significantly over the past two decades: "they're better today than they've ever been." Adele Jones, an independent consultant from Atlanta Georgia, and another speaker, implicitly challenged this conclusion in her remarks. From their remarks and talking to other experts at the event, it appears that the standard of school meals in Georgia and Florida varies even within the same cities, supported by the same budgets. Whatever the case is within individual schools, generally improving school meals by ensuring that fruits and vegetables, low quantities of refined sugar, more complex carbs and proteins are included, will certainly be better for the kids and probably help lower the obesity problem. But without help from parents, anything the schools do will be largely a drop in the bucket.

As David Foulk, Professor of Health Education at FSU, explained, "parents must take their share of responsibility for their child's obesity." He acknowledged that with both parents working it was hard for them to improve diet, but it could be done. He thought that public perceptions of childhood obesity were what most needed to change in public policy. "At the moment obesity is seen as an aesthetic issue (fat kids are less likely to be athletic, make friends, join in communal activities etc.), but it's more than that, it's about their future health, and ability to learn," he concluded.

And, like Adele Jones and Jim Warford, he said kids needed to exercise more. The problem was in finding the time and changing the curriculum to allow for more activity. Unfortunately, Mr. Warford oversaw a reduction in physical activity in the curriculum in the past few years. Today, children in schools in his County do 28 minutes less exercise a week than a few years ago. He said "it was one of the hardest decisions I've had to take, but with 27% of Marion County adults functionally illiterate, extra reading had to take precedence over exercise."

It is hard to argue with that conclusion. Illiteracy is linked to crime and poor health and it probably deserves top attention in schools, but even here some disagreed, citing studies that showed that children were more alert if they have exercised and so will learn more, including how to read and write. Nevertheless, more exercise is the main part of the answer and even enlightened people like Mr. Warford are taking schools in the wrong direction.

Another FSU Professor and psychiatrist, Dr. Steven Rollin claimed that actuaries were projecting that life expectancy may fall over the next few decades because of obesity. He was therefore pleased that corporate America was responding to the problem, citing that salads are available at McDonald's and Coca-Cola stock more milk and juices in vending machines in schools.

But as Dr. Rollin agreed, media pressure on these firms to change has focussed attention on their potential role in obesity, while largely ignoring the much greater societal problem that parents (and schools) are to blame for not enabling their children to burn enough calories.

Unfortunately, the obesity policy issue is a bit like that joke about an economist looking for his lost car keys. A stranger stops him on the street where the economist is searching under a streetlight. The stranger helps for a minute and then says to the economist, "Are you sure you dropped the keys here?" The economist replies: "No, I dropped them over there, but this is where the light is." Like so many other policy issues, the focus on obesity is on where change can be made, even if it is largely irrelevant (changing vending machine contents, or the fat content of burgers), while ignoring the elephant in the corner -- personal and parental responsibility. The danger of this approach is that it makes parents feel that corporations, and not them, are to blame that their children are fat.

Roger Bate is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a frequent TCS columnist.


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