Obesity the new "normal"

This article was copied in its entirety because it gives such a great perspective...
post submitted by Andrea Bossenmeyer

Of all the challenges to reversing our national obesity epidemic, the one that concerns me most is what I call the "distortion of normality." While constants in science (physical values or principles) are well known and don't change, life has far fewer "constants."

The constants we tend to adhere to most often are defined by our culture. Case in point: our relationships with food.

What we like to consider normal food intake and portions are far from constant. Aside from the differences between mainstream America and other countries, many of our internal definitions of "normal" change from generation to generation.

Take for example dress sizes. In 1933, the hip measurement for a size 8 dress was 33 1/2 inches. Today, a size 8 hip measurement is 38 inches. The average American today weighs 24 pounds more than in 1960.

But consider food and drink portions. A serving size of soda in 1956 was 8 ounces. Today, the standard size is 20 ounces. The standard adult meal serving at McDonald's in 1971, which consisted of a hamburger, bag of french fries and an 8-ounce drink, is what we now call a child's meal. Read the labels; many children's fast food meals are really adult portions.

Besides humongous soft-drink cup sizes, what about those bagels or doughnuts the size of spares tires on a Volkswagen? Or muffins the size of a grapefruit? Bags of chips are larger than ever, cookies seem as big as Frisbees; burgers have two, sometimes three patties stacked on the bun.

Now consider this: To your child, these portions are the definition of "normal" they will grow up with and pass on to their children.

Anyone with this sense of history should not be surprised that we're all getting larger. By the end of the first year of life, the typical American baby is overfed by 250 calories a day.

According to a recent study, factors known to have the greatest effect on encouraging childhood obesity include 1) being Hispanic, 2) having an overweight mother, 3) taking a baby bottle to bed, and 4) having a low or high (more than 9 pounds) birth weight. While three of these can't be changed, one can. Breast feeding reduces the risk of child obesity by 4 percent for every month the infant is nursed. It also helps mom lose weight gained during the pregnancy.

While "normal" is defined by the times and our culture, we can't escape one universal constant: Newton's first law of thermodynamics.

Simply stated, energy cannot be created or destroyed, it only changes form. Energy, in the form of excess calories, is either burned up (typically by exercise) or is turned into body tissue with all the extra calories becoming fat.

We live in a fast food and processed food subculture, driven by speed, cost and convenience. In this kind of culture, obesity, or at least a greater acceptance of it, has become the new normal.

In 1986, 55 percent of Americans considered overweight people less attractive. Today, only 24 percent of Americans carry the same beliefs. Attitudes are changing and we've become much more accepting of obesity. Is that how overweight and obesity will become the "new normal" of the 21st century?

I've had kids brought into my clinic because the parents are concerned that their child was "too small" when in reality their son or daughter was normal for height and weight, but smaller than their siblings, cousins or friends. Because so many of the family members are oversized or obese, any members who are normal by standard growth charts are looked upon as underweight or too small.

Every few decades, new charts for defining normal growth and development are created. When the next charts are issued, childhood overweight and obesity will then truly become part of the medical establishment's definition of normality.

The explosion of food portion sizes and the calories that accompany it create an imbalance in our kids' perception of what is appropriate versus what is normal. Is it "normal" for your child to consume a single bag of microwave popcorn while drinking a 20-ounce soda? Read the nutrition facts label on each product and you'll see that those two items have enough calories for almost three adults.

The standard candy bars are 100 percent larger than just a few years ago; and with 100 percent more calories, too. Again, remember that these food experiences will define and shape your child's perception of what is normal.

Child obesity is the new "normal" of the 21st century. It will remain that way if portion sizes are uncontrolled or are not checked by parents and in home attitudes about proper eating. Many experts say that we live in a toxic food environment.

Make the home an oasis from the problem, not its focal point. Failure to do so will continue to drive higher rates of early childhood obesity, Type 2 diabetes, early heart disease and a shortened life expectancy.

Dr. Stephen Ponder, who has Type 1 diabetes, has been a pediatric endocrinologist for 20 years. He is director of the Children's Diabetes and Endocrine Center of South Texas at Driscoll Children's Hospital. Contact him at 694-4864 or stephen.ponder@dchstx.org