Why Are American Teens Getting So Fat?

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One in five US teenagers has unhealthy cholesterol levels, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The two stats that stick out from this study are: (1) 1/3 of teens are sufficiently overweight to qualify for cholesterol screening and (2) 14% of normal weight teens have unhealthy cholesterol levels.

This reminds me of a great piece Marc Ambinder wrote last year about what an American obesity policy should do:


And with obesity, we're dealing primarily with children and prevention. Obese adults are not going to lose weight unless they decide to have their stomachs separated from their digestive tracts. Megan is pessimistic about any policy intervention and questions any such intervention from a moral level. But any sensible policy is designed to change the environment for children, not for adults. It's not as if children are making choices about food and enjoyment in a vacuum. Childhood obesity is fairly contagious: if you've got an obese friend, you are more likely to be obese. The heritability quotient for obesity is .65, which means that obese people tend to produce obese children; whether this is a consequence of genetics, epigenetic factors, pre-natal nutrition -- it's not clear. As kids and adults, obese people tend to cluster with obese people.

There are compelling public policy reasons to try and reduce the rate of childhood obesity. Lectures and hectoring and moral suasion don't work, but changing the environment these kids grow up in might work. Even such a fairly minor intervention as better maternal health habits can influence the likelihood that a child will become obese. Breastfeeding babies reduces the chances for obesity. Kids who sleep more as children will be less obese as adults. Kids who aren't as exposed to pesticides are less likely to become obese.

Without reversing the trendline, obese kids will continue to self-segregate; stigma within their group will be reduced, which is good, but it will grow among thin people, there will be more intergroup tension. John Edwards's two Americas: a fat America and a thin America, coming in about 15 years to neighborhoods near you.
I've written about the deeper trends under childhood obesity and they're devastatingly simple and intractable. America is very good at producing cheap, high-calorie food. In almost any other time in human history, the impulse to maximize calorie intake is necessary to live. Today, it's a one-way-street to obesity and health complications that cost the country tens of billions in medical costs.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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