Tag Archives: Obesity

What “The Hardy Boys” taught me about childhood obesity

Frank, Joe and Chet (with big clue!)

Frank, Joe and Chet (with big clue!) 1927

When my son John was in third grade he briefly glommed on to my collection of old Hardy Boys story books. We’d read them together at bedtime as I tried to instill in John a love for the Boys, their pals (“chums,” to be precise) and their ancient (to him) adventures. Alas, Harry Potter soon distracted him and the Hardy Boys went back to gathering dust.

For those of you too young to remember (or too Nancy Drew-ish in your literary tastes to care), The Hardy Boys was a 58-book series that ran from 1927 to 1979, coinciding with the sweet spot of my 1950s and ’60s childhood. (The success of the books also spawned a black-and-white Disney TV serial in the ’50s, a Saturday morning cartoon from 1969-71, and the truly awful Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, which ran from 1977-79.)* Long story short, The Hardy Boys books described the sleuthing adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy, sons of the famous private investigator Fenton Hardy, in sometimes excruciating prose.

Frank and Joe evolved over the books and years from cynical, in-it-for-the-money 1920s teenagers to paragons of 1950s authority-respecting American youth. A Hardy sidekick, Chet Morton, evolved in somewhat different fashion, which brings me to today’s topic: Parents of overweight and obese kids are getting really bad at telling that their kids have a weight problem. 

Chet was the clumsy, jalopy-driving foil to Frank and Joe’s buff manliness. In the very first book, “The Tower Treasure,” Chet is described thusly: “He was a plump boy who loved to eat and was rarely without an apple or a pocket of cookies.”** This puzzled John, who looked at the accompanying drawing and said, “Why do they call him plump? He looks pretty skinny to me.” He had a point. As you can see, Chet may have had a roundish face and a bit of fullness to his arms, but his waistline and legs are as skinny as Frank and Joe’s. “I guess that was considered fat back in those days,” I explained to John with a shrug. Then I looked it up and found that only about 2% of children were obese in the 1930s. By the time we were reading this in ~ 1999, about 15% of children were obese. By 2012, 21% of American teens were obese. It was true: back in the 1930s, an artistic bit of a double chin or a pinch of chub at the belt line was all it took to portray a kid who liked to keep his pockets lined with cookies.

Chet Morton, aka

Chet Morton, aka “Chubby,” 1971

Chet’s evolution over time says a lot about how we perceive child obesity. As time went on and obesity rates rose, his Jazz Era chubbiness wasn’t enough. Chet got fleshier. By the time the late ’60s cartoon appeared, Chet (renamed “Chubby,” in case kids zoned out on Sugar Smacks didn’t get the point) had taken on a doughy, full-figured form that signaled to contemporary viewers that Chet was, well, chubby. Today, when more than 1/3 of adults are considered to be obese, it’s getting harder to send that signal: portrayals of characters as truly “fat” have kind of gone over the top, and they’re usually pretty cruel.

A new study in the journal Child Obesity shows how society’s idea of “normal” weight has changed since the Depression. In a survey of parents of 2-5 year-olds, 94.9% of parents whose child was in the “overweight” category, and 78.4% of those who were frankly obese said that their child’s weight was “just about right.” As our kids get heavier, our “parent goggles” simply adjust. In a strange corollary, I talk to parents all the time who worry that their average-build kids are too skinny.

The sorta-good news? Parents’ mis-perception of their overweight children actually improved somewhat from a similar study done 20 years earlier.

Given all that, I wonder how Mr. and Mrs. Morton viewed their cookie-pocketed boy who got steadily heavier over the years but, strangely, never aged? Alas, in 58 books, they never said a word…

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* Shaun Cassidy as Joe Hardy?? Spare me…

Joe Hardy? Looks more like Justin Bieber...

Joe Hardy? Looks more like Justin Bieber…

** Chet was also described at various times as “big boy,” fat, plump, chubby, stout, heavy-set, chunky, “the chubby one,” portly and round. (“Portly” was my favorite.)

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Food for thought: Teen brains and obesity

Teen brain + metabolic syndrome = Trouble

A worrisome new study in the journal Pediatrics has found that teens with metabolic syndrome (MetS)* have something in common with adults suffering from the same disease: They, too, can have brain deficiencies and cognitive difficulties.

When a group of 49 New York teens with MetS was compared with 64 normal-weight kids, the MetS teens had lower scores on tests of mental ability, arithmetic, and reading. In addition, MRIs showed that the typical MetS teen had a smaller hippocampus than his or her normal classmates–that’s the part of the brain that deals with memory formation and storage. Such changes in adults had been thought to be the result of long-term metabolic disease; the discovery of similar changes in teens was unexpected, and scary.

Are these changes permanent? Does the brain recover if a teen loses significant weight and reverses his or her metabolic syndrome? No one knows for certain as yet, but this study adds a bit more urgency to the fight against childhood obesity. As Dr. Antonio Convit writes in the study’s conclusion:

“Although obesity [alone] may not be enough to stir clinicians or even parents into action, these results in adolescents strongly argue for an early and comprehensive intervention. We propose that brain function be introduced among the parameters that need to be evaluated when considering early treatment of childhood obesity.”

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Metabolic syndrome is defined by the American Heart Association as the combination of high blood sugar, elevated blood triglycerides, reduced “good” cholesterol, abdominal obesity, and high blood pressure.

Photo by Dierk Schaefer

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Early antibiotics and obesity?

An English study of more than 11,000 children has turned up an association between early antibiotic use (that is, antibiotics given to babies less than 6 months of age) and later obesity.  Interestingly, the study did not find that antibiotics given to children between the ages of 6 and 14 months increased the risk of obesity, and the effect of antibiotics on children aged 15-23 months was inconsistent.

Why would the antibiotic-obesity association be found primarily in younger babies? The authors speculate that an altered gut microbiota may be the culprit.

The germs that make up the gut microbiota (GM) are acquired at birth and shortly afterwards. By a few months of age the “core” GM is more or less set for life. An altered GM has long been associated with obesity in older children and adults (see more extended discussions in my posts here and here)–it would make sense that antibiotics given in this sensitive period of GM development would have greater impact than later on, when the GM is more stable.

The added risk of obesity from early antibiotic administration is small for any individual baby,  the study’s authors stress, but even small increases spread over an entire population can have significant public health implications.

Still, sometimes babies need antibiotics. Studies like this one highlight the unintended (but real) consequences of the overuse of a sometimes life-saving tool.

***(Photo credit: Seattleye)

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Poor kids likely to eat more sugar. Why?

Here’s a follow-up to my last post:

The deck really is stacked against poor kids in terms of risks for obesity. Not only are they less likely to be breastfed, which can help prevent obesity, but they’re significantly more likely to have high-sugar, high calorie diets.

Lots of sugar, not much fruit…                      (Photo by Dominic)

Why? Because sugar is cheap and convenient, and poor kids tend to live in neighborhoods where convenience stores–with their snack-and-proccessed-food-heavy offerings–dominate the local market scene. The politics of of American farming has a lot to do with our unhealthy way of eating, too.

The good news is the increase in local efforts to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the neighborhoods where they’re most needed. Here in Santa Rosa, CA, we have the Megan Furth Harvest Pantry, a mobile, miniature produce market that distributes healthy foods, as well as nutrition education, to needy families with kids five years old and younger.

Megan Furth Harvest Pantry

You can find other examples all across the nation, like this one in St. Paul, and this one in New York. Still, until the big-box grocers venture back into the poorer neighborhoods they abandoned long ago, far too many children will have sugar-heavy, unhealthy diets.

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More on cesareans and obesity

Cesareans? Really?

Does cesarean birth put a baby at increased risk for obesity in the future? Seems a little far-fetched at first glance, but Dr. Susanna Huh and her Harvard colleagues just published a study that makes the link a bit more “near-fetched.” (The study itself is available here.)

Huh’s team found that children born by cesarean section were twice as likely to be obese at 3 years of age than were those born vaginally. This relationship held up even when factors like the mother’s weight, ethnicity, age and how many babies she’d already had  were taken into account. Interestingly, it didn’t make a difference whether the cesarean was performed before or after labor started.

The study wasn’t designed to look at the reasons for the increased risk in obesity, but the Harvard team suggested several possibilities:

The first is the alteration of the gut microbiota–the sum total of all the bacteria found in the human bowel–caused by a cesarean birth. (More detail on that here and here.) This alteration can lead to low-level inflammation in the bowel which is associated with obesity.

The second possibility is that cesarean birth is just a stand-in for something else that’s happening at the same time. In this case, Huh and colleagues wonder about all the antibiotics given to women who are having cesareans. Antibiotics are known to alter the gut microbiota, but research results are mixed as to whether this is a lasting effect.

Finally, it’s possible (though unlikely) that all of this has nothing to do with the gut microbiota. There are hormones and other factors related to inflammation that surge in a mother’s bloodstream (and her baby’s) during labor, and these, obviously, are missing if a mother undergoes a cesarean before she starts labor. The lack of maternal stress response during labor could adversely impact the development of the newborn immune system, leading to the inflammation associated with obesity.

My best guess: it’s a big moosh of all of the above, plus other factors no one has even dreamed of yet. In the meantime, the issue of increased obesity risk is one more thing physicians and pregnant women should consider before deciding on how a baby is to be born.

It’s a complicated matter, this business of hatching healthy humans…

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“The Weight of the Nation”: Watch it tonight!

There’s an excellent documentary tonight on obesity in the U.S.: The Weight of the Nation (8:00 pm, HBO). From the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

The documentary is part of a public service campaign that encourages action at the personal, community, and national levels to prevent obesity. To raise awareness of the obesity epidemic and support action to reverse it, HBO is providing free online access to the entire documentary, as well as topic-specific segments, action steps, discussion guides, and other materials at http://theweightofthenation.hbo.com/. The series also will be viewable on YouTube.

Check it out–it promises to be a remarkable show.

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Not so fast! Study suggests c-sections don’t cause child obesity after all

Cesareans: No problem?

Here’s a Brazilian study that claims cesarean section isn’t a risk factor for obesity, which contradicts other studies that suggest an association between the two. Interesting finding, but this will need to be confirmed in other countries. There may be something about Brazil–cultural factors like diet, for example–that may overshadow cesarean birth’s alleged obesity risk.

Bottom line: obesity is a complex topic, and there are obviously many factors involved. Cesareans still seem likely to be a contributor, but to what degree remains to be seen.

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