ONE in three American kids and teenagers currently is overweight or obese, which is nearly triple the rate in 1963, according to the American Heart Assn.
Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported that from 1980 to 2012, the percentage of obese children ages 6-11 years old in the U.S. increased 7%, while the percentage of obese adolescents ages 12-19 years old grew from 5% to nearly 21% during the same time period.
The dramatic increase in the average weight of U.S. children has many people questioning what has changed over the years.
Quick, convenient meals are popular among busy families, especially as parents juggle taking kids from activity to activity every day.
That led many scholars to conclude that fast-food restaurants are the main contributor to the rising rates of childhood obesity because, often, those types of food establishments offer poorer-quality menu options — from a nutritional standpoint — that are appealing to children.
The issue is more complex, however.
A recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Gillings School of Global Public Health found that fast food is just a derivative of a much larger problem involving persistent poor dietary habits that begins at home.
The study of eating habits — titled "The Association of Fast Food Consumption With Poor Dietary Outcomes & Obesity Among Children: Is It the Fast Food Or the Remainder of Diet? — looked at the calories consumed from fast food versus the rest of the diet and how it related to being overweight.
Dr. Barry Popkin, W.R. Kenan Jr. distinguished professor of nutrition at UNC and leader of the research team, said a pattern of eating processed foods and highly sugary beverages instead of milk, vegetables and fruits is driving the rise in childhood obesity.
"Eating fast foods is just one behavior that results from those bad habits. Just because children who eat more fast food are the most likely to become obese does not prove that calories from fast foods bear the brunt of the blame," Popkin said.
Using data obtained from the "National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey" between 2007 and 2010, the researchers examined the dietary intake of 4,446 children ages 2-18 years old.
The children were divided into three groups based on the percentage of calories they consumed from fast foods: non-consumers, low consumers and high consumers of fast foods.
Low consumers were defined as children who ate 30% or less of their calories in the form of fast foods, while high consumers got more than 30% of their calories from fast foods.
In the study, 49.9% of the children were categorized as non-consumers, 39.5% fell into the low consumer category and 10.5% were in the high consumer group.
The researchers then evaluated the remainder of the children's food intake that did not come from a fast-food restaurant.
After reviewing the data, the results revealed that, in comparison to non-consumers of fast foods, high consumers ate considerably less milk, dairy and low-fat mixed dishes and had a higher intake of sugar-sweetened beverages in general.
In addition, it was found that the high consumers did eat more French fries than fruits and vegetables, but it was not as significant.
Also, low and high consumers of fast foods, on the whole, had a higher total calorie intake than the non-consumer group.
According to the research, the results demonstrated that childhood obesity is linked to eating patterns that were not established through frequent visits to the local fast-food chain.
"The study presented strong evidence that the children's diet beyond fast-food consumption is more strongly linked to poor nutrition and obesity," said Jennifer Poti, doctoral candidate in UNC's department of nutrition and co-author of the study. "While reducing fast-food intake is important, the rest of a child's diet should not be overlooked."
In a separate study on a related topic, food economists Jayson Lusk at Oklahoma State University and Brenna Ellison at the University of Illinois investigated the public's perception of the role fast-food restaurants play in obesity.
Individuals who participated in the online survey, which was administered by Clear Voice Research, were asked to categorize seven different entities — individuals, parents, farmers, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants and government policies — as either primarily to blame, somewhat to blame or not to blame for obesity.
The results revealed that 94% of people surveyed blamed individuals as being primarily responsible for obesity; parents came in second, with 91% of respondents classifying them as either primarily or somewhat to blame (Figure).
Farmers and even restaurants, on the other hand, were ranked relatively low in taking the blame for the rise of obesity rates.
However, Ellison reported a surprising response to the survey from farmers and individuals who receive food stamps.
"We learned that farmers and people who received food stamps were more likely to blame government and farm policy," Ellison said. "That seems off. You wouldn't expect that opinion from people who are benefiting from those policies; however, these individuals could be in the best position to observe the potential harm that some government policies create."
Still, the escalating rate of obesity for both adults and children in the U.S. has policy-makers creating and administering public policies to encourage healthier food choices and to reduce obesity rates.
However, it has been found that public policies such as those requiring calorie information to be displayed on restaurant menus and taxing sugar-sweetened beverages do not always deliver the envisioned results.
"Obesity is in the news every day, so it would be hard to say that people are unaware of the policy initiatives in place to reduce U.S. obesity rates," Ellison said. "Based on our study results, the more likely conclusion is that consumer beliefs about who is to blame for obesity don't necessarily align with the beliefs of policy-makers and public health advocates.
"In the United States, we're known for being an individualistic-based society, so it's not exceptionally surprising that we would put this responsibility for obesity on ourselves," she concluded.