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Professor: Childhood Obesity Rates High, But No Longer Climbing

Northwestern University communications and psychology professor Ellen Wartella
Courtesy Webster University

The Institute of Medicine first rang the alarm bells about childhood obesity in 2004, when a study found that obesity rates had more than doubled among children in the previous 30 years. At that time, they identified that about one-third of American children were either obese or overweight, and two-thirds of adults were obese or overweight. The question became why.

“They began to do a whole variety of studies at the Institute of Medicine and realized that this is not just a personal problem,” said Ellen Wartella, a communication and psychology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “Obesity is a consequence obviously of taking in too many calories and not expending enough, but (also) of the environment that we live in.”

Wartella was in St. Louis for a Monday night lecture on the media and obesity at Webster University.

Foods have been developed to have what’s called “bliss,” Wartella told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. The bliss point in foods refers to the amount of ingredients used to create the greatest crave

“These are foods that are high in fat and high in sugar and high in salt and high in calories,” Wartella said. “As Americans over the last 20 to 30 years have started to eat more processed foods (and) go out to eat more … this food environment was contributing to this particular kind of childhood obesity crisis.”

It’s been documented that childhood obesity leads to health consequences, including type 2 diabetes, self-esteem and mental health issues and cardiovascular disease.

“There are huge social costs,” Wartella said. “It’s estimated that in 2010-dollars, over $190 million was spent on healthcare because of obesity-related diseases.”

Over the years, there have been many efforts to address obesity. In 2006, the food and beverage industry joined those efforts.

“Just last month, for instance, at the Clinton Global Initiative, the major beverage-makers — Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr Pepper — they asserted that they will take another 20 percent of the calories out of sweetened beverages over the next five years. The industry is trying to address the issue, as well as the nonprofits and the healthcare industry and the government.”

But two problems remain: access to good food and inactivity.

“When you have little money and when you get dollar specials at fast food restaurants … you buy what you can, and oftentimes that’s packaged and processed foods that are cheaper than, in some cases, buying fruits and vegetables,” Wartella said.

“By some estimates, 8- to 18-year-olds spend as many as 7 hours 50 minutes a day with some kind of media, which tends to be sitting and not moving around,” she said, citing changes in technology and concerns over child safety. “We are a country that has also organized our lives to be less involved in physical activity.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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