Thursday, January 28, 2010

Childhood Obesity, Part I: Rethinking baby fat

191 pounds
During the State of the Union address last night, President Obama announced that Michelle Obama is going to lead a new American initiative to fight childhood obesity. I was obviously thrilled to hear this since, like most of us, I'm concerned about the fact that more and more Americans are becoming obese these days, especially children.

Michelle Obama has already emphasized the importance of eating locally grown, organic food—an issue near and dear to my heart—by planting the first organic garden on the grounds of the White House, and this new initiative jibes perfectly with the message of the garden, which is that we all need to be eating more meals that we cook at home—meals made from whole foods—rather than relying so much on processed and fast foods.

I imagine her initiative will also focus on exercise as well, an issue that's also important. According to USA Today, the initiative will work "to provide more nutritious food in schools, allow more opportunities for kids to be physically active and give more communities access to affordable, healthful food."

But what concerns me is that eating well and exercising isn't necessarily enough to combat the rising rate of obesity in our country. Yes, these are essentially the same tips I advocate on this blog, but my blog is read by a small group of people whereas people around the world listen to First Lady Michelle Obama.

And the problem with implying that obesity is only the result of bad behavior is that scientists are now starting to find out there may be more to it. It may actually be chemicals that are making our children obese at a much higher rate than say that of our grandparents' generation.

The real evidence of this lies with babies.

Babies don't eat too much or exercise too little. In fact, babies generally eat the same amount, especially if they're being nursed and can only consume the milk their mothers provide. Which is why it's strange that more babies—even babies who only get their calories from their nursing mothers—are now suffering from obesity too.

According to Newsweek's 2009 expose on this issue, "In 2006 scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health reported that the prevalence of obesity in infants under 6 months had risen 73 percent since 1980. 'This epidemic of obese 6-month-olds,' as endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco, calls it, poses a problem for conventional explanations of the fattening of America. 'Since they're eating only formula or breast milk, and never exactly got a lot of exercise, the obvious explanations for obesity don't work for babies,' he points out. 'You have to look beyond the obvious.'"

And when they looked beyond the obvious, what scientists found was that chemicals might be the thing making babies fatter. According to laboratory studies, chemicals make mice fatter by reprogramming their metabolism, and the same might be happening with babies . . . or any of us.

In fact, "In 2005 scientists in Spain reported that the more pesticides children were exposed to as fetuses, the greater their risk of being overweight as toddlers. And last January scientists in Belgium found that children exposed to higher levels of PCBs and DDE (the breakdown product of the pesticide DDT) before birth were fatter than those exposed to lower levels. Neither study proves causation, but they 'support the findings in experimental animals [and] show a link between exposure to environmental chemicals … and the development of obesity.'"

And that might be why some people under the age of fifty in our society have become obese even though they don't necessarily eat more or exercise less than anyone else.

Does this mean we should all give up trying to be lean, mean fighting machines?

Of course not.

In fact, if like me you weren't overweight as a child, scientists believe it's unlikely that you were affected by chemicals in this way.

Meaning that healthy eating and exercise is still the answer for most of us.

But it also means that we have to re-shape our ideas about obesity in this country. And we have to understand that there are now two reasons—chemicals and genetics—why you shouldn't judge the person who needs a larger seat in the movie theatre, doctor's office, or classroom.

(And don't try to pretend that you don't judge that person because I know you do. The sad fact is that we all do.)

So I applaud Michelle Obama for taking on this incredibly important issue, but I also urge her to look beyond the obvious culprits of diet and exercise and to push scientists to find a way to reverse the effects of these chemicals rather than simply telling overweight kids they need to exercise more and eat less.

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