Nearly 20% of children in the United States are clinically obese. It’s a condition that can threaten a child’s well-being and quality of life—obesity increases the risk of hypertension and type-2 diabetes, and both depression and anxiety are prevalent in obese children.
We already know how to prevent obesity in children, and it’s a combination of good nutrition, plenty of exercise, and stable support systems. It’s the causes that aren’t always as straightforward as some may think. Blame often falls on the child, the parents, or both—but there are many reasons why a child may be overweight, and it’s not always a lack of discipline or poor parenting.
In fact, the reasons for a child’s obesity may have less to do with the child themselves—and more with how our society values them.
Barriers that lead to obesity
We live in an inequitable society where some people have more advantages than others based on how they look, where they’re from, or what they have. These advantages are known as privileges, and certain privileges make life much easier for some but much harder for others. For example, white Americans enjoy privileges that BIPOC Americans are typically denied, such as high-paying jobs and access to dependable health care. We can see privilege in many areas of life, and recognizing it is an important step in fostering equity.
But what does privilege have to do with childhood obesity? A lot, it turns out. We can often trace a child’s diet, exercise habits, and overall well-being to their opportunities in life—or lack thereof.
Many parents within our community struggle to raise healthy children because of their circumstances. They don’t live near a field or playground, and if they do, it can be a dangerous place to go. They lack the money and transportation needed to buy fresh produce or make regular grocery store trips. Both parents may work more than 40 hours a week, leaving no time to cook and forcing them to rely on foods with empty calories, such as fast food and convenience store snacks.
But then some parents can provide their children with nutritious meals and plenty of exercise without a problem. They live in safe neighborhoods. The grocery store may be a ten-minute drive from their homes, and they can shop when they need to. One parent may work while the other cares for the children—or maybe both parents work from home. Either way, their flexibility allows them to serve home-cooked, nutrient-dense meals to their children.
It’s not a matter of some parents caring more than others—most parents want what’s best for their children. It’s a matter of some parents having certain advantages, or privileges, that other parents are denied because of their race, socioeconomic class, or other variables. It’s much easier to raise healthy children when parents have the time and resources to do so. Unfortunately, underrepresented families have worries and challenges that prevent them from giving their children everything they deserve.
And disparities in our society can run much deeper than exercise and food. For example, families living in poverty suffer uniquely high-stress levels related to their economic status, and research confirms the correlation between stress and weight gain. And since much of what it takes to raise healthy children depends on education, those who lack it are again at a disadvantage.
Childhood obesity is a deceptively complex issue that can’t be simplified. The problem isn’t always carelessness—there are systemic issues in our society that play a role.
CCI’s efforts to curb childhood obesity
At CCI Health & Wellness Services, we help families learn the ins and outs of healthy living—and we do it without judgment. In our commitment to health equity, we provide patients with the opportunity to take control of their health in ways that they’ve previously been denied.
We manage the largest WIC program in Maryland, and our efforts have helped thousands of low-income and underrepresented families in the area receive proper nutrition education and access to health-promoting foods. Though WIC at CCI is successful, we know there’s more to do, and that’s why we created our Food is Medicine program for our patients in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. When launched, the program will provide access to fresh produce and supplemental nutrition education through cooking demonstrations.
Those are just a few ways CCI does its part to prevent and reverse childhood obesity—but it takes a community to change a community. As neighbors, what can we all do to create a healthier future for every child?
What we can do as a community
Children who live with obesity face many obstacles, and judging their health isn’t helpful. Only kindness and understanding can lead to meaningful and lasting change in our community. And knowing what we do about the inequity in our society, there isn’t much room to fault any child for their situation.
Always practice empathy by imagining what it’s like for a child or their family. Try to be understanding. Don’t blame and shame—it will do more harm than good.
Encourage unconditional self-acceptance
Many children struggle with low self-esteem stemming from body image issues. It’s important to validate how they feel and help them in a nonjudgmental way. Let them know that they are loved for who they are. Help them understand that their worth doesn’t depend on how they look. And be sure to encourage them to speak with someone to help them navigate their emotions.
There are also some children who are content with how they look and feel. That’s a good thing—those who accept themselves are happier, more resilient people. But the physical issues that can arise from obesity still need to be addressed. Gently educate children on the importance of right diet and regular exercise while affirming their positive self-image.
Use your voice to make a difference
Learn about inequity and privilege in our society. Educate yourself on issues such as food deserts, unsafe neighborhoods, and the link between income and obesity. Share with others that environment and society serve as a powerful force in influencing our lifestyles.
And consider supporting CCI’s efforts to improve children’s health. While the government funds WIC at CCI, our Food is Medicine program depends on contributions from the community. More funding for the program means more of our neighbors will access fresh produce and nutrition education.
Childhood obesity is a public health issue that can be solved, but it requires a communitywide approach grounded on understanding and compassion. If we work to understand the many causes of obesity in children and meet families where they are, we can pave the way for children to live long, healthy lives—no matter who they are.