I've been to two high school productions recently. One was a musical, the other a choral event. Let me tell you what I noticed. In the musical, of the performers who didn't have lead roles, I'd say about 1 in 4 was overweight. In the choral production, the ratio was even higher -- nine of the 13 singers were overweight and probably five of them would be considered obese. I was shocked.
But maybe that's just the way it is today. Bill Baroni, a well-known New Jersey politician who told me about his 132-pound weight loss, said that when he grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, he was the target of cruel comments and hurtful exclusion by other children because he was “the fat kid” in his class. But today, he speculated, kids might not have it so bad.
“Today, you’re not the only fat kid in the class,” he said. “You’re just one of many fat kids.”
In fact, that’s just what health researchers have found. In a 2002 survey, the National Center for Health Statistics calculated that about 17 percent of children over the age of six are overweight or obese—that’s around 13.5 million children. That number has more than doubled in the last few decades. And who knows what’s happened in the years since the survey.
Having a child myself, I don’t want to believe that the blame lies solely with parents. And, in fact, I don’t think it does. Read up on the food industry—Don’t Eat This Book by Morgan Spurlock or Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser—to come face to face with the powerful corporate forces that are battling us for our children’s health.
But we are not blameless. One Cornell University researcher has quantified just how much responsibility we as parents bear. In his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink examines the influence of the person in the family he calls “the nutritional gatekeeper.” That's the parent who does the menu planning, grocery shopping and cooking. Through extensive studies, Wansink found that this person is responsible for about 72 percent of a family’s food choices.
I was heartened by that number, because it means that in our own house we can control all but 28 percent of the food our child eats. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that the decisions we make aren’t always good. Grilled sausage-and-cheese sandwiches. Donuts. Cheese puffs. Pepperoni pizza. Of our own volition, we abdicate some of our responsibility on a daily basis.
I recently laid out on the kitchen table the typical foods my son eats during an average day. I checked labels, looked up nutritional information online and added up his intake of just one ingredient: sugar. I'll post the results soon.... as soon as I pick myself up off the floor!