Trends in Childhood Obesity and the Cultural Factors That Drive Those Trends

“Kids today just sit around eating Cheetos and playing video games. It’s no wonder they are all fat!”

This bit of wisdom came from a blunt-spoken friend. Was he right? 

He is at least partly right; obesity in children is a problem. The question is, how did we get here and why? Can we really blame video games and Cheetos? 

This article examines popular wisdom and scientific wisdom to see whether cultural factors, trends, and other driving forces can offer a compelling answer to that question. And we’ll find out if my friend was right; and whether nutrition and exercise trends play a part in producing a growing number of children in our country who are overweight or obese. 

First, we’ll take a quick look at the definition of obesity and how the numbers have been and are changing, just so we know what we’re talking about. Then we’ll explore three of the biggest factors contributing to the rising rate of obesity in American children, along with suggestions for how to make sure that your child doesn’t become (or remain) a statistic in the obesity epidemic. 

What is Obesity? 

Obesity is defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more. BMI is a rough indicator of body fat based on height and weight. For children, BMI is compared to the average for their age, and children who are at or above the 95th percentile are considered obese. You can find a BMI calculator for children and adolescents here.

Trends in Obesity 

America as a nation is unequivocally fatter than it used to be. Here are some numbers to ponder. Since the 1970’s, the number of obese children and adolescents in the United States has more than tripled. Twenty percent–one in five–children are now overweight or obese. 

But “Why?” Why are we collectively overweight? What has happened in our nation and in our world, to make this happen? This is larger than just individual people making poor choices. Such a widespread shift points to larger cultural change. 

Part of the answer lies in a sea of change in the way children are viewed. From the founding of America in the late 1700s, up to the middle of the last century, large families were desirable for most people. More children meant more workers on the farm or in cottage industry. Children were useful workers. Sometimes a new baby was just another mouth to be fed, but soon enough that extra mouth would begin earning it’s keep. This way of looking at children sounds shockingly mercenary to our ears, but it was the norm until recent generations. Child labor laws put an end to the exploitative use of children as workers. That needed to happen, but there were several unintended consequences, including extending the expectations of childhood through the teen years. Suddenly an eighteen-year-old man was no longer a skilled worker with a decade of experience, but a youth who was just beginning to learn a trade, with several years of vocational training or college ahead before he would be a useful member of society. 

The implications of this changing view and treatment of adolescents, are staggeringly large. For this article, the most important implications have to do with activity. When youth began working less and spending more time in school, they obviously got less activity. That has been exacerbated in recent years as recess time is repeatedly shortened or even removed. Most children now are not permitted or at least not encouraged to play outside, which means they get even less activity. (This is a broad generalization, and certainly many parents actively encourage outside play. But statistically, fewer children than ever before are regularly playing outside.) 

Understanding national and worldwide trends is fascinating, but not always helpful on an individual level. In the next sections, these trends are broken down into three areas in which you can make choices and change the consequences. In each area, we look at what is going wrong and how you can make changes in your life and in your family’s life. 


Fast paced and convenience based, the typical American lifestyle sets us up for poor health choices. When schedules are packed, parents are at work, and children are shuttling between activities and school for all their waking hours, meaningful exercise and good nutrition are difficult to achieve, and downtime is either nonexistent or spent in front of a screen. The unspoken (and unintended) message is that work and social engagements are more important than health. In addition, in all the chaos, learning to sit still and hear the messages from your own body often doesn’t happen. Fatigue and lack of sleep are often mistaken for hunger, and even if we recognize them for what they are we may fall into the trap of eating for energy instead of sleeping more. These coping strategies become the norm for our children (or may already have been for you). 

Not everything about a busy lifestyle is detrimental to health, but a change in lifestyle is often tremendously beneficial to your children’s health. Becoming less busy and cooking at home are two of the most impactful changes you can choose to make. Nutrition will be addressed in the next section. 

Busyness, in brief, is a matter of what is important to you. The simple exercise of writing down everything you do for a day or two and then thinking about why you do it, is an excellent start to being able to say no to what matters less. Practice evaluating decisions in light of how they impact your health and wellbeing. 


Taking time to cook and sitting down as a family is hugely important and largely lost in standard American culture. 

Taking time to cook is important. When you buy food, even if it’s not fast food, chances are that you will get larger portions and more fat and sugar than if you cooked at home. Also, when you prepare food at home, you can choose to gradually include more and more vegetables and less processed (non)foods. 

Don’t make this more complicated than it has to be. Shop around the perimeter of the grocery store, and remember that good food is not about fancy cooking and complicated preparation. A common trap is to believe that you have to do it perfectly and that even one unhealthy meal is a failure. Counting victories is far better. If eating healthier means that for one night of the week you will throw baked potatoes in the oven with several vegetables, that is a huge win and may pave the way to other changes. And even if it doesn’t, one healthy meal is better than none. 

Enjoy your food and don’t forget to celebrate the victories! 


Smartphones, television, DVDs, Nintendo™, video games, etc. and etc. Passive, sit-down entertainment has become such a large part of most children’s lives that we no longer stop to think about how unnatural it is for children to be sitting hunched over a screen instead of throwing a ball, playing tag, wading in the creek, tumbling through the woods, or spending hours in imaginative play in the backyard bushes. Granted, for many urban and suburban children that kind of idyllic, Rockwellian childhood is impossible. 

But again, perfection is not the goal. Progress is. 

The recommended amount of activity is at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week, which comes out to around 20 minutes per day. Recess counts. So does throwing a ball in the park, playing a sport, dancing in the living room, and even Nintendo Wii. If possible, practicing regular physical activity as a family is the best scenario. Children learn what they see, and you as a parent are one of their most important role models. But if work demands make it impossible to walk with your children or take time for games, you can encourage them to join a group activity with friends. 

Habits of nonactivity start young. To counteract learning bad habits, toddlers should have little to no screen time, instead playing with blocks, dolls, trucks, and other physical manipulatives. It takes more time and effort from parents but laying the foundation of good habits is worth it. 

Healthy children, healthy families

Far too many weight loss programs for children are little more than calorie restriction and calorie counting programs. That kind of program won’t create lasting healthy habits. 

Healthy children and healthy families go together like a bat and ball. 

Practicing healthy habits together is the best way to lasting change and lifelong health. Some of the ways you can do this are to schedule a family cooking night where you try new healthy recipes together. Not only are you teaching life skills, but children are also far more likely to try a dish they have made themselves. Or go on a family hike, get a summer pool pass, or sign up for a dance class. Buy a cheap camera for each child and have “dates” where you walk around the block and have a contest to see who can get the coolest and most unique photograph. 

Healthy should be and can be fun. Doing healthy as a family is a great way to have fun and be well together. 

KidsHealth Nemours. June 2018. “Overweight and Obesity.” 

Worldwide trends in childhood overweight and obesity

Obesity statistics 2008

Environmental influences on childhood obesity:

Janelle M. Zimmerman Bio