The Leading Causes of Childhood Obesity in the U.S.


Childhood obesity is a widespread condition in Western societies today and especially prevalent in the U.S. An obese child can be describes as what most would recognize as significantly overweight. They have more body fat than is considered healthy for a person of their particular height. The condition initiates much more than just public humiliation, which itself is very harmful, usually causing serious psychological damage that lasts a lifetime. The physical detriments of obesity are even more severe. The condition dramatically lowers life expectancy and is directly linked to the deaths of at least 300,000 in the U.S. every year.

It also reduces the quality of life. The factors contributing to obesity are many but overeating is the most obvious direct cause. Genetics and socioeconomic situations have been shown to play a statistical role in the reasons people eat too much but overwhelmingly, the majority of overeating is a result of inactivity. Not coincidentally, the percentage of obese Americans began rising in the 1960’s, when the television became babysitter to the youth of the nation. The sedentary nature of watching television is conducive to ‘unconscious snacking’ and in conjunction with the tempting but less than nutritious food advertising, generations of ‘couch potatoes’ have resulted.

The ‘Couch-Potato’ Syndrome

There remains a strong association between childhood obesity and the amount of time spent watching television. The wide-spread problem, known as the ‘couch-potato’ syndrome, is considered to be the result of consuming large amounts of snack foods which are high in calories and fat content while watching television. “Eating a diet in which a high percentage of calories come from sugary, high-fat, refined foods promotes weight gain” (“Overview of Obesity”, 2007). Fast food consumption and lack of exercise are the major controllable factors in obesity of children. Inordinate amounts of time spent on the computer, watching television and playing video games leads to higher rates of obesity. “Over nine million children between the ages of six and 19 are overweight” (“Overview of Obesity”, 2007).

Although it has not been determined just exactly how much television is watched per day by America’s children as the studies conducted thus far vary on their outcomes, it has been found that children spend a majority of their time outside of school and sleep sitting in front of the television. New channels such as Nickelodeon and Disney Cartoon, designed to specifically cater to the young child, make efforts to provide quality programming without some of the violence, drug use and sexual innuendo featured in more prime time shows making many parents feel more comfortable about this T.V. watching time. However, children continue to be exposed to a great deal of highly sophisticated, influential and enticing advertising even on these networks, introducing concepts that are not necessarily conducive to a child’s well-being and has proven to have a negative effect upon a child’s nutritional choices.

Television Advertising

Research regarding the behavioral outcomes of television advertising found that it is a significant factor in determining the specific items, including food items, children request. Although it was recognized early on that advertising would generate most of the operating revenues for television programming, it wasn’t until the 1960s that advertisers began creating commercials targeted specifically toward children as a means of adding to their audience, and therefore consumer, base. Understanding that children do not have the same cognitive power as adults, more than 60 psychologists have voiced their concerns to the American Psychological Association (APA) regarding television advertisements to children, citing in their report several countries that have legislated restrictions for the advertising to children. These countries include Greece, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Canada. According to these studies, children eight years old and younger do not understand that advertisements serve a different purpose than other television programs. They completely believe what the television tells them so advertising to them is ‘like shooting fish in a barrel.’ (Cooper, 2004) Advertising to young children takes full advantage of their naiveté, a practice that, in any other context, is generally illegal and unquestionably immoral (Kunkel et al, 2004).

Junk Food Junkies

Television commercials promoting foods often misrepresent their products to impressionable children, as well as adults, regarding the product’s nutritional values, or lack of. “Health experts believe that constant promotion of high-calorie food is contributing to the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States by encouraging preferences for junk food and contributing to poor eating habits” (Byrd-Bredbenner & Grasso, 2000). As people watch their favorite shows, they are enticed by yet more types of ‘junk food.’ They then quickly and loudly inform the parents of the new product they ‘must have’ who then, more often than not, buy the product. It’s an endless cycle enabling what has become an obesity epidemic. Instead of playing outside and burning up calories, children are content to sit and snack. (Miller, 1999).

Poverty Adds to the Problem

The way to lose weight and not be obese is to eat less, eat low fat foods, limit television time and exercise regularly, very simple sounding. Yet, it’s hardly simple, far from it. Why are economically disadvantaged children more likely to be overweight? Poverty leads to stress, an emotional response which then leads to them seeking an outlet for this emotion. Food is the perfect remedy for pent up emotions. It’s legal, relatively inexpensive and readily available and inherently intertwined with human emotions in many ways. Poor children have a six times higher likelihood of being obese than do children who are of middle or upper-class income environment. (Gawande, 1998)

Heredity Significantly Influences Obesity

Those genetically disposed to being obese have greater difficulty in losing weight and maintaining a desired body mass. Some kids are simply born to be big. Studies have demonstrated that about half of overweight children have parents who were overweight. Heredity also influences where on the body a person carries their excess weight, whether on the belly or hips. A child’s metabolism refers to how efficiently the body burns up energy. Metabolic levels and hormonal balances differ widely among individuals and both factor significantly in controlling weight. “Recent studies show that levels of ghrelin, a peptide hormone known to regulate appetite, and other peptides in the stomach, play a role in triggering hunger and producing a feeling of fullness” (“Overview of Obesity”, 2007).


Lifestyle preferences such as overeating, usually while sting around watching television, on a regular basis, not surprisingly, contribute to weight gain. The ‘couch potato’ syndrome is curable however. Studies have shown that obese children lose weight when they are allowed to spend less time in front of the television. If the poor and ‘fat by birth’ spent more time outside and break the habit of snacking in front television, these groups would lode weight as well. Though there are many ‘causes’ of obesity, the bottom line is, whatever the excuse or reason, increased activity coupled with less high calorie food intake is he best cure for obesity. The responsibility lies with the parents of overweight children and obese adults to modify current behaviors.


Byrd-Bredbenner C & Grasso D. (2000). “Commercials During 1992 and 1998.” Journal of School Health. Vol. 70, pp. 61-65. Web.

Cooper, Garry. (2004). “TV Advertising is Bad for Children.” Associated Counselors and Therapists. Hermosa Beach, CA: Web.

Gawande, Atu. (1998). “Why Money Won’t Buy Fat” Slate. Web.

Kunkel, Dale; Wilcox, Brian; Cantor, Joanne; Palmer, Edward; Linn, Susan; & Dowrick, Peter. (2004). “Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children Section: Psychological Issues in the Increasing Commercialization of Childhood.” American Psychological Association.

Miller, Daphne. (1999). “Television’s Effects on Kids: It Can be Harmful!” CNN. Web.

“Overview of Obesity.” (2007). Cardiovascular Diseases. University of Virginia Health System. Web.

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