The increase in childhood obesity over the past several decades, together with the associated health problems and costs, is raising grave concern among health care professionals, policy experts, children's advocates, and parents. Patricia Anderson and Kristin Butcher document trends in children's obesity and examine the possible underlying causes of the obesity epidemic.
They begin by reviewing research on energy intake, energy expenditure, and "energy balance," noting that children who eat more "empty calories" and expend fewer calories through physical activity are more likely to be obese than other children. Next they ask what has changed in children's environment over the past three decades to upset this energy balance equation. In particular, they examine changes in the food market, in the built environment, in schools and child care settings, and in the role of parents—paying attention to the timing of these changes.
Among the changes that affect children's energy intake are the increasing availability of energy-dense, high-calorie foods and drinks through schools. Changes in the family, particularly an increase in dual-career or single-parent working families, may also have increased demand for food away from home or pre-prepared foods. A host of factors have also contributed to reductions in energy expenditure. In particular, children today seem less likely to walk to school and to be traveling more in cars than they were during the early 1970s, perhaps because of changes in the built environment. Finally, children spend more time viewing television and using computers.
Anderson and Butcher find no one factor that has led to increases in children's obesity. Rather, many complementary changes have simultaneously increased children's energy intake and decreased their energy expenditure. The challenge in formulating policies to address children's obesity is to learn how best to change the environment that affects children's energy balance.