by Dr. Mark Berman, M.D.
What does it mean that we have a childhood obesity epidemic?
Essentially that an unprecedented number of children are now substantially overweight. To give you a sense of how bad things are in the United States, childhood obesity rates have tripled since the 1970s with roughly 17% or 12.5 million children obese.
Why is this a problem?
The epidemic is a major problem for many reasons. Our children are now commonly developing weight-related medical problems like Type 2 Diabetes and obstructive sleep apnea. Type 2 Diabetes used to be called Adult-onset Diabetes because it was unheard of in children. What’s particularly worrying is that overweight children are at high risk for becoming severely obese adults. Because of childhood obesity alone, it’s feared that today’s children will be the first of many generations to die at an earlier age then their parents despite medical advances.
What’s causing the epidemic?
It’s abundantly clear that dozens of factors from junk food marketing, massive portion size increases, decreased exercise time in schools, insufficient breast-feeding and lack of safe places for kids to play are to blame. Ultimately, the increase in cheap calories in the form of added sugar, added fats, refined grains, meats and cheese are the main cause of the caloric imbalance that has led to a population-wide weight gain.
One way to look at this is as a “success failure”, meaning that prior generations consciously worked to make certain foods cheaper and easier to grow and continuously invented technology to decrease the amount of manual labor needed to live and get around. They also worked hard to make more money by getting better and better at selling more and more food. Obesity is the side-effect of that collective success.
If everyone just decided to go vegan, would it completely solve the problem?
It would help considerably but there is no single solution to this massive problem. Yes,we all need to take responsibility for our health, but we also need to fix the societal structures that ultimate dictate most of our health behaviors.
Why would being vegan help?
On average in every study I have seen, vegans weigh less than vegetarians who weigh less than meat eaters. In other words, the more animal products in the diet, the more overweight the population. The data is remarkably consistent.
There are two main reasons why animal products afford weight gain. The first is “caloric density”, meaning every bite of food made from animals typically has more calories in it than every bite of food made from plants. So a veggie burger would likely have 1-200 calories less then a hamburger of the same size. Partly this is because all plant- based foods contain fiber (which doesn’t add calories directly) and have more water then animal-based foods. The second is that animal-based foods are way more prevalent than plant foods, so being vegan naturally limits the amount of food to graze on in our society. Imagine you are at a buffet with forty dishes. If you liked all forty dishes you’d eat more than if you only liked five.
There are other reasons why animal foods may predispose weight gain, like negatively changing our gut biome or poor caloric-offset ability, but it will take some time before we know exactly which mechanisms explains the strong association between consuming animal foods and obesity.
There are also other reasons why kids or adults following a vegan diet are likely to be less overweight. for example, a vegan diet is likely to have more raw food, which is typically lower in calories than cooked food. Furthermore, becoming vegan usually brings with it a rise in health awareness and so it’s not surprising that people who eat a vegan diet are more likely to choose other healthy behaviors like exercising more often.
Why is “vegan” not enough?
Remember that much of the extra calories driving childhood obesity comes from added sugars (e.g. huge quantities of soda, juice and other surgery drinks) and added fats (e.g. mostly plant-fats that find their way into too many baked and processed foods, large portions of pizza, sandwiches etc.). If we were to make everything vegan it might help, but we’d still have massive quantities of vegan junk food that can easily cause too much weight gain if consumed in excess. Even 3 meals a day of healthy vegan food, plus snacks, juice, and daily desserts might be too many calories for our kids who are sitting in front of desks, TVs, iPads and computers all day.
Raising our children vegan gives us the best chance of raising healthy-weight children. This is especially true if paired with adequate breast-feeding after birth and an environment that promotes active play daily, decreased screen time and processed junk food, and provides ample fruits, vegetables and whole foods along with physical and emotional safety.
Perhaps even more important is this:
Raising a generation that is aware of the profound impact of their food choices on the environment and the lives of other creatures will create a generation of concerned adults that will use their power and skills to create a healthier world for all.