Obesity Epidemic: Peter Jennings Is Wrong

Published March 1, 2004

Peter Jennings said on his recent ABC Special Report on Obesity that U.S. agricultural policies and the food industry are making our kids fat.

Peter Jennings is wrong.

When I was a kid I played outside a lot. After school, if it wasn’t raining, I’d play outside until it got dark, dinner was ready, or it got cold. The backyard, an empty lot, or the street was my playground. I rode my bike two miles to and from school every day from third through ninth grade.

In elementary school we had an hour of physical education class every day, plus an hour at noon to play after we gobbled down our lunch. We had morning and afternoon 10-minute recesses that we spent on the school playground.

In junior high, seventh to ninth grades, we had one hour of gym class every day. It was compulsory; the only way we could get out of it was with a doctor’s written excuse. At lunchtime we had organized intramural sports; though not compulsory, most kids participated. For the jocks we had “varsity” sports after school. The school district provided “late” buses for the kids who participated in after-school activities and rode the bus.

In high school, 10th to 12th grades, we still had compulsory gym class, even for the jocks. Riding bikes to school was considered kid stuff by then. Most students either rode the school bus or walked, and a few eventually got their own cars. That was too expensive for most kids, though.

My college required 14 semester hours of physical education credit to graduate. I don’t remember any fat kids in college. I never knew a kid with diabetes. I thought it was an old person’s disease.

In medical school I learned there were kids with diabetes, but they always had a kind called “juvenile” or type-1 diabetes. It was pretty rare. Juvenile diabetes was much more difficult to manage than the common form in adults, called “adult onset” or type-2 diabetes. Adult onset diabetes often could be managed with weight loss and dietary control. Kids always had to take insulin shots.

Over the last three decades, obesity has reached “epidemic” proportions in America’s kids. The incidence of diabetes in kids has increased, but the increase is all accounted for by the adult form, or type-2 diabetes. In all the years I practiced pediatrics I never saw a kid with type-2 diabetes.

Pediatricians tell me today half the kids with diabetes have type-2 diabetes. They have it because they are too fat. They will have it the rest of their lives, and because they have it their lives will almost surely be shorter than they would be otherwise, and they will suffer a lot more morbidity.

Kids are too fat today because they no longer get enough exercise. Today the average American kid spends 95 percent of his or her time indoors. Indoors, kids are told from an early age to “sit still, be quiet, and don’t run or jump.” Yet that is exactly what kids need to be doing to grow and develop normally.

Many schools, for economic reasons, have cut out gym class and after-school sports. Kids who stay after school now go to the library or study hall. Kids who go home can’t play in the street and there are few parks or playgrounds for them. They stay inside where they can’t run, jump, or get much exercise. They have learned to sit still and be quiet, watching the “boob-tube,” playing on the computer, or talking on their cell phones. And they eat.

Dr. Harold M. Koenig is a former surgeon general of the U.S. Navy and currently serves as president and chairman of The Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy. This article was first published by Cybercast News Service, December 12, 2003 and is reprinted here with permission.