Sunday, May 30, 2010

Obese Children

Michelle Obama is concerned about the growing child obesity problem—and well she should. And of course, the government has to be part of this problem. “BMI measurement for all children” and “Improving access to healthy, affordable food, by eliminating ‘food deserts’ in urban and rural America.”

There is absolutely no question that there is a very serious child obesity problem—one that will bankrupt Obamacare (and practically any other health care system that you can imagine). But once again, today’s liberals are intent on the government solving a problem that a previous generation of liberals a generation ago unwittingly created.

Let us marvel in the first generation in the history of mankind where obesity is a problem of poverty. Throughout history, getting enough calories in your diet to even be chubby usually meant you were nobility, if not royalty. King Henry VIII went from a fit and vigorous young man to a guy who needed armor with a 54 inch waistline. If you were a peasant—even what today might be considered middle class—you worked too hard and food was too expensive for obesity to be common.

I’ve seen the change in my lifetime—and Michelle Obama acknowledges the problem is part of a “30-year trend.” When I was in elementary school, I had very few classmates who were even chubby. There was one kid out of 400 in my elementary school who would be considered fat (and probably not even obese)—and he was from Turkey. There are many causes of the increasing obesity problem, and this article focuses on one very substantial cause—but let me emphasize that it is not the only cause—just one that liberals caused.

One of the advantages kids had back then was mothers who were home, and actively involved in child rearing. Even mothers who had to work full-time (like mine) still managed to play an active role in encouraging healthy dietary habits. I was limited to one soft drink a day. Dinner included reasonable portions of meat, a starch, and vegetables—and as much as I hated overcooked vegetables, I was expected to eat them. Desserts were infrequent in our house—perhaps once a week. Nearly every other kid that I knew came from a similar home, with parents making similar efforts to encourage self-discipline and healthy eating.

Today, large numbers of elementary school kids are getting themselves ready for school without a parent. When my wife substituted at our son’s elementary school in California, kids were showing up at school with donuts for breakfast—because both parents had left the house hours earlier, expecting their kids to make their own way. After school, too many elementary school kids are returning to empty homes, and eating for comfort. I recall when my wife and I were out looking at houses one day in California, the realtor let us into one house where a fairly fat elementary school kid was sitting in front of the TV with a huge bowl of potato chips. Many unsupervised kids get in lots of trouble: early sex; smoking; alcohol. Are we surprised that bad eating habits are part of the problem?

When I was 10, most elementary school kids came home to a mother. Today, this is a surprisingly rare situation. When my wife was staying home to raise our children in the 1980s and early 1990s, she described the various neighborhoods in which we lived as ghost towns from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM—at which point the kids would come home to empty houses.

This transformation didn’t just “happen.” It was the result of a conscious decision by liberals to actively promote the idea that no woman was really “fulfilled” unless she had a full-time career—and staying home and raising kids wasn’t part of the career track. Through active propaganda campaigns and passage of laws banning sex discrimination in employment, liberals destroyed the postwar social consensus that a man would normally be the primary breadwinner.

Part of what helped destroy that postwar consensus was that there were a lot of well-educated women who wanted to be more than just mothers. Another factor was the rise of no-fault divorce, which made it much easier for guys to dump their families. Women who had been content to be homemakers now had no choice but full-time employment.

One unfortunate side effect of this dramatic increase in the number of women in the workforce was unsurprising: an increasing competition for resources. What happens to pay scales if you increase the number of workers competing for the same number of jobs? This graph shows what happened to family income for one income families, two income families, and so on, inflation adjusted. Note how one income family incomes stop growing in the early 1970s—while two income families do not. Many Moms wanted a traditional family, where they stayed home and kept the kids out of trouble (including with food). Now these traditional families were competing for housing and other resources with “modern” two wage earner families.

Especially for those with low skilled, low wage jobs before every woman working became the social goal—this was devastating. It was bad for male primary breadwinners, who often could no longer raise a family on one income. It also meant that when divorce happened (often aggravated by financial struggles), a mother joining the workforce with even less job skills than her husband was utterly impoverished. Even if child support payments came in (and often they did not), it was simply impossible to raise a family on her low skill wages—and who will supervise the eating habits of her children while she is away at work?

Some years ago, I watched a fascinating debate about feminism organized by William F. Buckley, with a surprising participant: Professor Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Professor Fox-Genovese was a nationally recognized expert on labor history, and definitely a liberal—but she made the point that feminism for women such as herself, with graduate degrees working in high status positions, had been a major win. For the majority of women—those trying to raise kids in a trailer park with low wages and no father—it had been a major disaster. I would argue that while childhood obesity has many roots, the good deed of 1960s liberalism—the insistence that every woman with small children should be working, and her kids in daycare—is a big part of the problem.


  1. I only recall a few parts of the dialog from the movie Blackhawk Down, but I do recall all the American soldiers referring to the locals as "skinnys". The reason should be obvious.

  2. Hi Clayton,

    Your article discusses one of the causes of obesity, but you have your cause and effect slightly off. Calories don't cause obesity. Body reactions to certain kinds of foods cause obesity. You can eat 4000 calories a day of meat, vegetables and whole grains and you won't gain weight - if you can stuff it all down. You can eat 1500 calories a day of ice cream, candy, soda and chips and you will gain weight.

    Guess which form of food kids eat when they don't have parents?

    As it happens, there is another cause of rising obesity, and that cause is also tied to 1970's liberalism. In the 1970's, the government jumped the gun and created the impression that saturated fat was the cause of certain diseases. George Mcgovern chaired the committee that issued the report. In the 80's, the food manufacturers came out with foods that didn't have saturated fat in them. Instead they substituted two other products which really do cause disease - and obesity - sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans-fats).

    If the government could just announce "We made a mistake, saturated fat doesn't cause anything, please start eating it again instead of sugar and hydrogenated oils", we would be all better off. But government can never admit a mistake. If they did, we might lose faith in the government, and that is more important than human disease and obesity.


  3. I wonder about another couple of things -- ADA compliance and organized sports. My son's high school is a disaster for handicapped accessibility. The oldest section was built in 1910, with multiple wings and additions added. The floors in the various parts do not line up, and to go from one part of the building to another even when both parts are at the same level often means up a flight, over and back down. And this is a building with 16-foot ceilings, so one flight there is 1-1/2 times a flight of stairs in a modern building. There are over 500 kids in this school, and only a handful are obese.

    Another thing I wonder about is organized sports. In the old days, kids came home from school, and after a quick check-in with mom, they played. Unsupervised, by their own rules, which they typically made up as they went along. Nobody drove them anywhere to play, so they played with the kids nearby, who were going to be a random sample of ability, fitness, etc. Now what we call "play" is organized into teams and leagues, with rules and coaches and referees and organized highly productive practices and games with spectators who are interested in who wins. Organized sports sets up an apartheid between the athletically talented kids, who get on the team, and get to play, the less talented who are relegated to riding the bench, and the untalented whose only exercise is walking back into the bleachers with an order of nachos.

    There are other modern fads... "Attendance centers" where they rearrange the students into schools with just 2-3 grades each. So now instead of the neighborhood kids all walking together en masse to the neighborhood school, with the bigger kids supervising the littler kids, we have the 1st graders being driven (by their parents, neighbors or bus drivers) in one direction, because the 5th graders are off in the other direction.

    None of these things is in and of itself the single one cause, but they all add up...

  4. One small quibble with a post I mostly agree with.

    You say that no-fault divorce allowed men to abandon their families. Sure, sometimes. But the majority of divorces are initiated by the wife. These women must be seeing their opportunities as better without hubby than with him.

    I especially agree with your association of rising competition for jobs with flattening wages for men. The work force was nearly doubled. Basic economics of supply and demand tells us wages will stagnate or fall.

  5. Commenter James has it right. Check out this now-famous video of a lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig, expert on childhood obesity, called Sugar: The Bitter Truth. (I discuss the lecture further on my site here in a post called "Low-hanging fructose".) And mostly we have eaten differently in the last thirty years because the government has, in various ways, subsidized and encouraged our doing so. Sigh.

  6. I have seen plenty of marriages collapse over the years--and often, women have initiated them. Some have been because they saw "better opportunities," or the financial pressures of two full-time workers finally crushed what was left of a relationship. But often it has been because of repeated infidelity, physical and emotional abuse of spouse or kids.

  7. An interesting and provocative claim about the cause of obesity. I can believe that "empty" calories (those primarily from simple sugars) could be worse for you than calories from saturated fats associated with animal proteins. I'm skeptical that 4000 calories from saturated fat wouldn't cause obesity relative to 1500 calories from sugars.

  8. Actually Ann Coulter nailed the reason behind childhood obesity (as well as most of our current pathologies)...Single Mothers.

  9. I've considered another culprit - the media.

    If a kid goes missing in a far away state it's all over the news. Parent hold their kids tighter and don't allow them to play unsupervised.

    When I was a kid we walked 1/10 mile to the bus in the morning and back in the afternoon. Yeah, no real hardship there. Now, on the same street, parents drive their kids to the bus, sit there with cars idling, and drive off to jobs or back home. In the afternoon the same cars are at the end of the street waiting for the kids.

    This is not in any way an unsafe neighborhood.

  10. One thing I remember from my childhood 50+ years ago is fat kids and fat adults.

    Obesity is not something new, it's something that is especially abhorred now.

    Since no one was tracking weight then as it is tracked now, I cannot see how it's suddenly a SURPRISE!

    Though you didn't ask, I've always been fat even though my mother was always home and meals and play were much as you describe in the "good ole days".

    Though none of my grandchildren (all under the age of six) could possibly be described as overweight, one of them is by yesterday's and today's measures underweight and has been since early infancy.

    Yet her parents have succumbed to the obesity scare and have now (at age 3) limited her to non-fat milk... and worry that she doesn't eat enough or "right".

    Considering her background -- both parents with weight problems -- I think the kid should be left alone. She's doing fine on her own and her calorie intake should not be artificially manipulated.

    I cannot help but remember one of her playmates (8 mos?) who was too fat to crawl. The playmate was breastfed but my granddaughter had been fed high calorie formula supplements due to her being underweight.

    There is something at work that creates an 8 mo old too obese to try to crawl beyond whether the mother is at home after school.

    The only thing I hope to accomplish here is to instill the possibility that obesity is wholly a societal phenomenon. As a secondary result it would be nice if genetically inherited obesity were not considered an environmental disease.

    I fear for all my grandchildren.

  11. Another factor was the rise of no-fault divorce, which made it much easier for guys to dump their families.-Clayton Cramer

    Tom Bridgeland's remark earlier is correct, most divorces are initiated by females.

    No-fault divorce, which should be correctly termed unilateral divorce, was the product of feminist activists, wealthy celebrities, and the divorce bar.

    I have seen plenty of marriages collapse over the years...-Clayton Cramer

    ...and so have I. But let's not play a round of My Anecdotes Can Beat Up Your Anecdotes. Let's look at the statistically valid samples of marriages and divorces. Statistically valid scientific surveys of the reasons females torpedo a marriage find that "repeated infidelity, physical and emotional abuse of spouse or kids" is rarely the reason she pulls out of the marriage. By far the reasons females give are the stuff of teen angst fluff such as "I've fallen out of love," "I needed to find myself," or "I wasn't fulfilled."

    I recommend Sanford Braver's book Divorced Dads. Braver's research debunks a lot of She's-A-Victim myths Men-Are-Bad misandrous folk tales spread by both the feminists and the chivalrous.

  12. Your theory could be proven by comparing a large group of latchkey kids to a large group of homeschooled kids. It would be interesting to see such a study done.

  13. "James" is not smart.

    As it happens, there is another cause of rising obesity, and that cause is also tied to 1970's liberalism. In the 1970's, the government jumped the gun and created the impression that saturated fat was the cause of certain diseases. George McGovern chaired the committee that issued the report. In the 80's, the food manufacturers came out with foods that didn't have saturated fat in them. Instead they substituted two other products which really do cause disease - and obesity - sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans-fats).

    James, "saturated" (with hydrogen) is "hydrogenated". Synonyms.

  14. There is no right or wrong concerning whether parents should spend more time at home with their children or be more available to give of themselves. However, there is not-so-good, good and better.

    The not-so-good parenting approach doesn't put the interests of the children first. It tries to balance the parent's needs with those of the children. This results in a less than adequate parenting experience for the children. As you have mentioned, they become under-nourished both physically and emotionally since the parent is sacrificing their children's well-being for their own. Even though it may not be intentional it is a consequence of a parent wishing to balance a busy career with the responsibility of being a parent.

    The good parenting approach recognises this shortfall in their children's upbrining and seeks to resolve it either by hiring a child-minder to cover the times when the parent isn't available - perhaps to pick their children up from school; or by asking relatives to help them out. Again, while this is not a bad approach to parenting while trying to hold onto a busy career, it still leaves the children with a short-fall in their experiences with their parents.

    In both these cases, the parent has an obligation and responsibility to make sure that any time they do spend with their children is such that the child calls the shots. That is, that the parent would do well to make their children feel very loved and cared for and that their time together does not feel like it's 'fitted-in' with the rest of the parent's evening or weekend activities. Children need their parent's attention and affection and discipline. It's what love is.

    The third approach to parenting is what I call 'better'. It's when a parent realises that parenting is THE most important responsibility they have. That a career, a social life and all other personal interests come after their children's needs and not before.

    When a parent realises the value of the time they spend with their children and the effort they need to put into their children's development and well-being, that parent will do whatever is necessary to ensure their children get everything they need from them. No-one is saying that they have to give up their career, but whatever they do, they cannot give up one inch of their children's development or one minute of their well-being.

    When my children were young both my wife and I needed to work because we simply didn't have enough money on one income. For a short time we used a child-minder to pick the children up from school and look after them for 2 hours in the afternoon. I wasn't happy with this. So I approached my boss and asked him if I could come into work early and work my lunch break in order to leave 2 hours earlier in the afternoon to pick my children up. He was very understanding and allowed me this privilege.

    A couple of years later I because self-employed and relished the opportunity to work from home. This meant that I could give my kids all the time they needed from me. I also made sure that I stopped working at 4pm every day to cook dinner for everyone.

    Of course I understand that sometimes both parents have to work. Of course it's ok to want a career. But my appeal to all parents is please put the interests of your child before your own. Do what you have to to ensure they are not deprived of the provision, affection, attention, discipline and instruction they need from you. All of these are summed up in one word - love. Stephen Rees

  15. Sonar,

    While James wrote some questionable things, so did you. Saturated and hydrogenated are different things. It is true that a saturated fat cannot be further hydrogenated, but we use the term "hydrogenated" to refer to fats where extra hydrogen was added by man (chemistry). So beef tallow, while saturated, would not be called hydrogenated. And partially hydrogenated fats are not saturated. Indeed, trans-fats are not saturated, as a fully saturated fat cannot exist in the cis or trans orientation.

  16. The cause of childhood obesity is simple; lack of exercise. When I was a kid I ran, biked and swam all day long. That is between candy store stops. I came home to a huge dinner complete with dessert and my siblings and I were all skinny despite eating a lot of candy although we didn't have chips and such on demand at home. We also didn't have x-boxes, wii's, computers and 300 cable channels to entertain us.

  17. Kelly got it: video games, computer games, TV...

  18. Thanks for the response to my comment, Clayton.

    My comment isn't as provocative as you may think. The experiment where people are fed a very high calorie diet has been tried several times. In general, it is very hard for people to gain weight through calorie addition.

    Fat calories and sugar calories are not "empty", or "full" calories. They are chemicals which have affects on the body through reactions with hormones and enzymes. Getting "fat" is best thought of as a response to mild toxins, not calorie intake. Calories in and calories out are not independent variables. The human body has mechanisms to maintain a certain weight, it will force calorie intake (through hunger) or calorie output (through energy level or body temperature) to maintain the weight it wants.

    All of this has been confirmed through dozens of experiments, and through basic chemistry by biochemists for the last 60 years. You can read about every study and chemical theory in one handy (and exhausting) book:

    "Good Calories Bad Calories, by Taubes.

    You can watch a video of Taubes explaining his theory here:

    Also, the video "Sugar the Bitter Truth" mentioned in a comment above is equally illuminating. Thanks to Eve for that.


  19. To Sonar,

    When I referred to "hydrogenated oils" in my post, I meant "partially hydrogenated oils". I did that for brevity sake.

    Sorry to confuse you.


  20. If there was a simple cause for obesity, then everyone would be svelte and the XXX diet purveyors would be out of business. To get an idea of how complicated this issue actually is and how poor the reporting, check out some of the articles at:

  21. Lack of exercise has to be one of the most important factors - not whether or not a child's mom is at home or divorced. Kids no longer have recess at schools where they can play tag, hide and seek and (God Forbid) Dodge Ball.
    No, everything must be scheduled, no room for imagination before, during or after school for kids.
    Growing up, many years ago, we thought of our own games with our friends and siblings, and most parents pushed all of us kids out of the house to get some exercise. Now, kids are taught that being outside is dangerous and are rarely allowed out of their parents' sight.

  22. We know what's causing obesity, and it's not feminism. This is yet another attempt to take something your side dislikes and the other side promotes, and link it to a problem.

    I could just as easily argue that poverty is a major cause of childhood obesity (see here: and blame conservatives for promoting policies that (arguably) have helped create the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots in America.

    But the truth is, these roots of these problems are complex, and neither of those "conservative" or "liberals" explanations can fully explain them. Consider also that the food industry creates disgusting, unhealthy snacks, drinks and meals that cause obesity and promotes them with deceptive advertising and low prices. Aren't they culpable? And families rich and poor, stable and unstable spend too much time sitting on the couch, staring at various screens. I just think it's unfair and counterproductive to try to blame problems this complex on the "other team" to score political points.