Sara Gable shakes her head in disbelief as she recalls the scene that played out before her in the lobby of a Columbia movie theater. Standing in the concession line, Gable listened as a woman in front of her ordered popcorn combos for herself and two young girls. "What would you like to drink?" the woman asked. To Gable's pleasant surprise, one of the girls asked for water.
Gable's pleasure turned to amazement, however, when the woman flatly denied the request. Water, she said, did not come with the deal they had ordered. The girl would have to choose a soft drink instead.
For Gable, an associate professor in MU's Department of Human Development and Family Studies, the exchange was simply another instance of how weight gain in children has become a super-sized problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some five percent of American children between the ages of six and 19 were overweight in 1980; that figure is now 15 percent, or almost nine million young people.
Richard Carmona, the U.S. Surgeon General, has been touring the nation to speak out on the issue. Heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure are occurring with increased frequency in children, he tells audiences, and type 2 diabetes -- an adult illness linked to obesity -- is now on the rise in kids. In addition, he says, an overweight child has a 70 percent chance of becoming an overweight adult. For children with even one overweight parent, that chance jumps to 80 percent.
"Our children deserve much better than a lifetime of expensive and potentially fatal medical complications associated with excess weight," Carmona recently told a crowd at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "We must teach our children to enjoy healthy foods in healthy portions."
The trend has not gone unnoticed by national media, and recently the airwaves have been flooded with stories taking pains, like Carmona, to detail medical perils associated with childhood obesity. But this approach fails to address more fundamental questions: Why are our children getting fatter in the first place? What can parents and health professionals do to stop the trend?
Gable and her colleagues at MU's College of Human Environmental Sciences say the search for answers should start in the homes of children with weight problems. "I think a lot of people look at overweight as a medical problem," she says. (Gable and other researchers use the term overweight as a noun to describe an increased body weight in relation to height, when compared to some standard of acceptable or desirable weight.) "But when you start considering the environmental factors of overweight, you realize research needs to take place outside of the medical field."