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HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

A weighty problem

Think you know why Generation XXL has swelled its ranks? Check out these five surprising and suspected supersizers.

By Karina Kinik

Talk about a gut check: Not even the first family is immune from the public health crisis that is childhood obesity. Before rolling out the anti-obesity campaign Let’s Move in February, Michelle Obama discussed her daughters’ previous weight concerns after their pediatrician warned about their too-high BMIs (which prompted leading eating disorder organizations to caution the first lady against sending kids the wrong message about body image and dieting).

With an ambitious goal of ending childhood obesity within a generation, Let’s Move aims to provide parents exercise and nutrition know-how, revise school lunch standards, promote physical education, and make healthy foods more accessible. And not a moment too soon: Though U.S. obesity rates may have reached a plateau, nearly a third of children are overweight or obese and — thanks to heart disease and diabetes — likely to have a shorter life span than their parents. Not to mention more emotional problems.

So why have our children packed on the pounds over the past 30 years? The simplest explanation is too many calories and not enough exercise, but that doesn’t address the myriad factors — from family to environment to education and income levels — that can shape an individual’s diet and behavior. While it may not be possible to identify a single cause of obesity, aside from rare genetic disorders like Prader-Willi syndrome, we’ve rounded up five surprising and suspected supersizers worth taking a closer look at.

Sugar, sugar everywhere

OK, the surplus of sugar in kids’ diets is not especially surprising to most readers. However, the debate over which sweetener poses the most health risks may be.

As we mentioned in “Five Ubiquitous Foods to Avoid,” high-fructose corn syrup — or rather its sheer prevalence in sodas, sweets, and other processed foods — may be linked to expanding waistlines. According to Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma, as our per capita consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has increased since the mid-1980s (thanks to corn subsidies), so too has our appetite for good old regular refined sugar. In other words, we’re simply taking in too many cheap, empty calories — often without realizing it.

Not only that, but some studies have suggested a link between fructose consumption and obesity because of how the body metabolizes that basic sugar. In fact, fructose may boost food intake and the growth of fat cells around vital organs, and a new study by Princeton University demonstrated that rats given high-fructose corn syrup gained considerably more weight than those given table sugar.

While others argue that high-fructose corn syrup’s bad rap is unwarranted (note: the study’s author is a consultant for the food and beverage industry) and that evidence linking it to weight gain is inconclusive or insufficient, many manufacturers — including Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, Snapple, and Starbucks — have made the switch to “natural” cane sugar in some or all of their products.

The bottom line: Whatever your family’s choice of sweetener, moderation is key. Fifty-two grams of sugar in a 16-ounce ice tea, regardless of its fructose-glucose composition, still amounts to about 12 teaspoons of sweetener per bottle. That’s well over the American Medical Association’s recommendation of no more than 32 grams of added sugar per day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

So the next time your kids start begging you for a soda, try giving them low-fat milk, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, or water instead. Are sugary beverages and snacks all to be had at their school? Learn how to become a junk food fighter or cafeteria crusader.

Karina Kinik is an associate editor for GreatSchools.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/28/2010:
"I took my daughter to the doctor and she referred me to the nutritionist, who explained to me about my daughter's BMI. I understood but I don't have enough funds to stay at home and make my daughter healthy meals all the time. I feel like we live in a microwave society where things have to happen right then and right now, so we stop through the McDonald's drive thru or whatevers' convienient at the time. Maybe if the food was already prepared and not so costly we could do the healthy thing for once."
03/15/2010:
"How about our government stops spending our tax dollars on subsidizing cheap corn which gets turned into subsidized high sat fat beef and subsidized high fructose corn syrup, instead of making our girls anorexic? What if they spent that money on subsidizing fresh vegetables and education, instead?"
03/15/2010:
"If the cost of sugar would triple I think you would see a dramatic decline in obesity, particularly in children. I realize in doing so this would lead to numerous problems regarding the sugar industry. "
03/15/2010:
"High fructose corn syrup is also linked to fructose malabsorbtion (dietary fructose intolerance), a digestive condition that is found in 30-40% the population of central Europe. If your kid gets stomach aches after drinking a soda or even eating a chewy granola bar, check the ingredients. HFCS could be the culprit."
03/12/2010:
"I'm french ans I was in California this summer. My son was learning to sail in a day camp. I was very surprised to see each morning, a ten-years old boy, who was arriving with a bag with candies than he was eating at eight o'clock ! He was not obes but really too big. And I was suprised because his father was a very slim man with beautiful suits... So, the same problem is arriving in France : sometimes parents don't see their children like they are. And I love your country."
03/11/2010:
"I agree that sugar is bad for you and should be limited. Sugar is not only bad for weight gain, but it weakens the immune system also. The government should limit it's role to schools and information. We should be free to make our own eating choices. Do you really want to be forced to eat how the government says you should!"
03/11/2010:
"What happened to recess that the kids used to have. We were able to do better in school and we didn't have the weight problem. If kids are locked up all day in school classes then this is what the tend to do at home because it is what they are used to doing. Get the kids back outside and maybe there won't be so much sickness in school also."
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