Ask a thousand doctors what the single greatest health challenge facing America's children today is and most won't need to think twice: Childhood obesity. In the past twenty years, the number of overweight children has tripled, and epidemiologists warn of an impending epidemic of obesity-related problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, and joint and sleep disorders.
But as the medical community continues to disseminate this message and national statistics make the problem clearer, a bona fide public health mystery is shaping up “ one whose solution may come from an unexpected field, not traditionally focused on kids' nutrition or physical health.
While America has been shining a light on the physical side of the obesity equation, startlingly little attention has been paid to the underlying emotional roots of the problem. Perhaps that's because we as a society tend to see excess weight as a purely physical issue. But for clinical experts in the field of emotional health, the link between stress and eating has long been clear. For kids who may have trouble verbalizing their feelings or emotional state, overeating and overindulgence in high-fat foods are common responses to stress or depression. Child psychiatrists, child development specialists, and charities that work with kids in crisis observe this phenomenon every day at a grassroots level, as an increasing number of kids are brought to our doors suffering from both emotional issues and the physical and social burdens of being overweight.
Often, even professionals find it difficult to tell which is cause and which is effect. Children under stress overeat, which can lead to teasing, bullying, even social isolation, which in turn can lead to more seeking of refuge in food or other unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse. Or the cycle can start with an overweight child who finds him or herself shunned by a society ultra-attuned to physical "perfection," leading to feelings of inferiority, self-loathing, and despair.
Could a rising tide of stressors on children be the "missing half" of the obesity equation? While more study and research are needed to determine how big a role childhood stressors play, both anecdotal evidence from the treatment field and surveys on the emotional state of American children indicating rising pressures on today's kids suggest a need for closer scrutiny. Under the direction of the KidsPeace Lee Salk Center for Research, a national survey of 1,023 American children between the ages of ten and thirteen found youngsters reporting levels of stress and traditionally adult fears that would have been unimaginable just a generation ago. Consider these findings:
- 54 percent fear they may contract AIDS;
- Four in ten children as young as ten believe they may fall into the traps of early pregnancy, unwed parenthood, drugs, or alcohol;
- 45 percent fear they will be physically or sexually abused;
- 51 percent are worried about their own deaths;
- In a country where happiness and its pursuit are virtual birthrights written into our founding documents and cultural DNA, nearly half (47 percent) say they are afraid they might be unhappy in life.
In the past few years, children have also had to contend with the emotional aspects of terror attacks in New York, London, and Madrid; horrific school shootings in several communities; snipers in Washington, D.C., and Ohio; and disasters such as hurricanes Ivan, Katrina, and Rita. Is it any wonder that the psychic toll of life today is affecting our kids emotionally as well as physically? While no one thinks twice when adults have a bad day at the office or go through a particularly painful breakup and have an extra mug of beer in the local tavern or an extra pint of chocolate macadamia madness from their freezer, the role of emotions and stressors in childhood obesity is almost absent from the popular national debate. But the truth is: It's not only what our kids are eating...sometimes, it what's eating our kids.
So what should we do? The first thing, obviously, is for public health officials and health philanthropy officers to examine more closely the role of emotions and stresses on modern childhood obesity and be prepared to commit significant resources to research and efforts designed to better understand and fight both the physical and emotional causes of the epidemic. One such approach is already in the early phases of testing and is gaining early advocates from important quarters. KidsPeace, a 124-year-old national children's charity, recently launched a two-part initiative to provide children with free problem-solving resources via a Web site, www.TeenCentral.net, and get America's parents to spend more time preparing and eating home-cooked meals with their kids so they can monitor not just what goes into their mouths, but what comes out as well.
Providing stress-reduction resources and encouraging families to discuss day-to-day issues over a healthy, home-cooked meal (which research demonstrates to be an effective venue for communication and a good predictor of reduced future incidence of physical and behavioral problems) has prompted support from child expert Dr. Alvin Poussaint "because it not only helps kids to eat healthily but also gives them tools to overcome the underlying emotional reasons that can lead to overeating -- a two-sided approach you don't normally read about in the newspapers." Dr. Lewis P. Lipsitt, founder of the Brown University Center for the Study of Human Development and perhaps the world's leading child-development expert, calls it "a step forward in the fight against the widespread appearance of childhood obesity. By encouraging Americans to eat healthier meals together with kids and take the time to get more deeply into their lives and help them with problems, we can work toward a nation of happier “ and healthier “ kids and families."
As we approach the end of Mental Health Month and National Family Month (extending from Mother's Day to Father's Day), during which families are encouraged to spend more time together, we urge families, public health officials, and philanthropic foundations to take a new look at a problem that seems to be intensifying despite the good, albeit one-sided, efforts being made by so many. As a nation, let's start taking more seriously not just what goes into the mouths of babes, but what is coming out of them, and let's all work together to defuse the childhood obesity bomb.
C.T. O'Donnell II is president & CEO of KidsPeace, the National Center for Kids Overcoming Crisis, a 124-year-old national children's charity that helps thousands of young people at sixty-three centers nationwide overcome traumas, abuse, neglect, eating disorders, and other emotional and physical problems.