It’s Saturday afternoon at the shopping mall and the Weathervane is teeming with customers. Good prices and a convenient location make the restaurant a popular place for families, but the real draw is its trademark – gigantic portions of food. Customers choose from huge servings of fish, massive hamburgers and piles of French fried potatoes. “Small” sodas are actually large, and “large” drinks hold more than a liter. There is no limit to the rolls and pickles, and rich cakes and sundaes awaiting those who still have room. Many do. As the economy booms, double-income American families are eating out more. Obesity rates are soaring, and are starting to affect children as much as adults. "What we’re seeing is children with adult kinds of disease, which is something that you never used to see," says Jean Harvey-Berino, a professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont. "We’re seeing children with hypertension. We’re seeing children with high blood cholesterol levels. We’re seeing children with Type 2 diabetes, which used to be considered the adult version of diabetes."
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), over half, or about 97 million Americans, are overweight. Of those, some four million are more than 46 kilograms heavier than they should be, resulting in mortality rates about ten times that of the general population in the same age group.
For children, the obesity rate is about one in five. Obesity-related diseases are starting to affect children as young as age five, but are also turning up in school-aged children and adolescents.
The trend has appeared so fast that genetic factors can be all but ruled out as a cause, "We have noticed that it is probably more related to a decrease in physical activity and to eating larger portions. It is simply the ‘super size’ phenomenon of getting servings that are ten times bigger than they need to be." With schools under pressure to increase class time and raise the quality of education, physical education gets less attention, so children are not as likely to go outside and expend energy. "Like music and art," she says, "people see physical education as dispensable."
Over-stressed American parents also commonly resort to sweets as behavior modification tools. At a Friendly’s Ice Cream parlor recently, a young couple silenced their screeching toddler and 5- year-old with hefty hot fudge sundaes.
What concerns Harvey-Berino is what will happen to today’s obese children when they become adults. "We don’t really know what the long-term effects will be. OR DO WE?