Are Parents Responsible for Childhood Obesity?

Why obesity has more to do with public policy than bad parenting

Published on February 20, 2013 by Abdul El-Sayed

Recently, I wrote an open letter to LeBron James asking him to reconsider his endorsements with Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and an article decrying Beyoncé’s recent $50 million contract with Pepsi. Reaction to the articles was mixed. Many supported them, recognizing the implicit influence that stars like LeBron and Beyoncé have on the consumption habits of impressionable children.

Others were less supportive. They argued that rather than food companies and trend makers like LeBron and Beyoncé, children today are obese because their parents aren’t doing a good job controlling their children’s diets and coaching them to more active lifestyles.

But the numbers tell a different story.

Childhood obesity has tripled since 1980. Today, about 17 percent of American kids are obese and 25 percent are overweight. Such a drastic increase suggests that something has changed over the past 30 years. Getting to the bottom of what’s causing the childhood obesity epidemic means figuring out what is changing.

And it’s probably not parents.

In fact, the numbers suggest that parents are more worried about obesity than ever before. A recent poll found that parents are increasingly worried about childhood obesity—it tied with illegal drug use as the most prominent concern among parents these days.

If parents haven’t stopped caring about their kids’ eating and exercise habits, what has changed?

In 1973, high commodity prices were devastating grain farmers throughout the central US. In response, the Nixon administration initiated agricultural subsidies, artificially dropping the global price of corn and other grains. The reverberations of this move still echo throughout the food market—and have important implications for childhood obesity.

Subsidies keep the price of food, from beef to high-fructose corn syrup, artificially low. That, in turn, increases the number of people who eat foods containing these products both here in the US and abroad. American farm subsidies have largely underwritten the global food corporations that have come to be synonymous with obesity, like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and McDonald’s, by decreasing the cost of their starting materials and allowing them to sell their products at lower prices than the market would otherwise allow.

In that respect, what has changed is the environment within which parents are making decisions about food. Rather than being able to choose between several healthy, affordable options, today’s post-subsidy world has rendered the most affordable options the least healthy, forcing parents’ hands in favor of less nutritious diets for children, particularly in low-income settings.

Blaming parents for childhood obesity is but one example in a larger narrative about how we falsely attribute the causes of obesity in our society. We blame individuals (or their guardians) for what seem to be simple personal choices to eat poorly and not exercise rather than thinking about the contextual incentives and disincentives they face that shape their behaviors.

More often than not, changing contexts are what change the behavior of large groups of people.

So where do LeBron and Beyoncé come in? Well, they didn’t cause the obesity epidemic, either. But by underwriting corporations that are, they perpetuate the foodscape that has become so dangerous, accelerating the epidemic on the backs of impressionable children.

In the end, childhood obesity remains a concern for all of us (even Coca-Cola according to a recent add they released). Rather than blame the obese (or their parents), it behooves us to think about how our environments may be shaping our decisions regarding diet and physical activity. And if the ultimate goal is fix the problem, then we should look to its source: a food environment that is increasingly polluted with Coke and Big Macs that is limiting parents’ food choices and fattening their children.

Edited by Karestan Koenen.


Abdul El-Sayed
Abdul El-Sayed is a social epidemiologist and physician-in-training. His research explores how our social realities make us sick. Abdul is also Fellow at Dēmos, a non-partisan public policy center in New York. His commentary engages healthy policy questions in the US and globally, with a particular focus on social inequalities and disease prevention in light of health trends. Follow him at @elabdul.

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