Childhood Obesity: A Different Take

junk food


This is a guest post by Jill Castle, RD and was originally posted here.

Have we led parents astray in the war on childhood obesity? Have we over-sold food and exercise as the solution? Over-promised that if you eat right and move more, all the worries, and excess weight, will be gone?

Last month was Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. We heard a lot about the contributors to childhood obesity—from the food kids eat at home and school to their lack of exercise and their seduction by the media. We heard about great programs, like the Let’s Move! program and healthier changes in the School Lunch Program. And we heard how grim the projections for the future will be for all Americans here.

We continue to hear about what kids should and should not eat, how much to exercise, and the terrible side effects of carrying too much weight, for too long. It will take many resources, many angles and innovative approaches to fix this problem.

But there’s other stuff going on with kids and their weight we don’t hear much about. As a child nutrition expert who has worked with many families over the years, I am aware of the other, less talked about, influences on childhood obesity—or what I refer to as the background noise.

What we aren’t hearing and talking about is the root of the problem.

The underbelly.

The beginning.

Maybe even the biggest influence of all.

When we address these and include them in the fight, I believe we can end childhood obesity.

This blog series intends to help you think more broadly about childhood obesity– beyond the conventions of food and exercise. Sure, we have to make every effort to get good food and exercise on board and in balance for all kids, but there’s more to the story. Over the next month, I will be taking a different look at childhood obesity, covering the following topics:

Myths and Assumptions: I believe the biggest childhood obesity myth of all is: Fix Food = Fix Childhood Obesity. To me, this assumption has misguided parents and professionals for years, and gets in the way of true success. Fixing food is just the tip of the iceberg. There are more assumptions about children and their weight–I’ll take a look at these, and give you a fresh perspective.

Everyday Feeding Styles and Practices: Perhaps one of the biggest oversights in the fight against childhood obesity is the powerful influence of how parents feed their kids. Believe it or not, how parents interact with their children around food and eating, such as authoritarian or permissive feeding styles, and rewarding or restricting practices, has an impact on how well (or not) kids eat, and their weight. Yet, these are present from Day 1 and infrequently included in the childhood obesity discussion.

Parents are Under-Prepared (and Under-Performing) on the Job: The job of raising healthy kids is a difficult one. Without parenting classes, home economics, extended family involvement or other support systems, parents are left to navigate the job of nutrition and feeding children on their own. I’ll take a look at how the elimination of educational programs and parenting guidance has impacted today’s parents (and children), and what we can do about it.

I hope you’ll join me on this series, asking your questions and sharing your reflections. But more importantly, it’s time to start changing the conversation, because the conventions that target food and exercise alone may not be enough to solve childhood obesity for tomorrow’s children.

Are you with me?

Jill CastleJill Castle is a registered dietitian, mom of 4, and creator of Just the Right Byte. She is co-creator of the Fearless Feeding Community and co-author of the upcoming book Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. You can find more about Jill here:

  • Angie Mora

    I’m guilty….

    • Jill Castle

      We all make mistakes–recognizing them and getting on the right track is the important thing. :)

  • Shelley Franklin

    I’m looking forward to reading this! I was born in 79 and was an extremely obese child by 1988, a victim of a mix of bad infrastructure and parents who fully bought into the “Snackwell’s Syndrome”. It’s such a complicated issue, if your metabolism and insulin is already done-in by the age of 8 you are pushing a boulder uphill to ever try to be normal. I’m lucky to have been able to medically correct a lot of those issues and now can embrace physical activity and eating real food (goodbye 1980s “low-fat high carb” diet that got me in such a bad place), and feel so strongly we need widespread cultural changes. Can’t wait to see your blogs.

    • Jill Castle

      thanks Shelley. I agree a cultural change is needed–a whole new modern approach to child nutrition in general.

  • NAO Nutrition

    I’m with you on this crusade and couldn’t agree more with this post.

  • Tracy

    Has anyone thought of asking the kids what they are hearing and seeing and what they think would work? And why the current approach isn’t working?

    • Jill Castle

      I haven’t asked kids what they think would work, but I have worked wth many kids one on one. Kids are subjected (whether intentional or not) to their eating environment…they don’t have much say in the matter. By the time they can notice and speak up, habits are well formed and difficult to turn around.

    • Ubk4me

      I know kids are under stress from all directions. They need to learn coping skills early on to detox from it. School teachers, bullies, heavy assignments, family issues, divorce, moving, family illnesses, parental absences, financial issues to name a few. These all weigh on children if not properly treated w/in family circles.
      Children ascribe self guilt & blame too often. It can wreak havoc on their immune systems as well as their hormonal balances, ie, cortisol levels. We lack levels of personal interaction from multigenerational sources that used to be readily available years ago. I came through a lot of this. IMO. Great direction.

      • msmsms

        But that comes back to the role model and parenting. If a child is provided garbage food, and learns by example that feeling bad is a good reason to eat cookies, that is what they will do. It doesn’t matter if they lose a parent or lose a baseball game.
        I agree that these things can have much wider impact that just body size, but if the child learns to (try to) cope through food then that is what they will tend to do. And they’ll feel worse. If they learn to cope through talking it out, or going for a run/walk, then that’s what they’ll tend to do.

  • Annabel Adams

    I think the “war on obesity” hasn’t succeeded for a number of complex reasons, one of the most important reasons being that we’ve ill-defined “obesity.” I believe our focus on body weight (or rather, BMI) is destructive and counter to actually improving health.

    • Jill Castle doubt, a complex issue and I am just looking at a different angle that I believe is more powerful than we recognize in general. Weight is the end product- there’s a lot going on before the weight comes on.

  • Pat

    the beginning….how about starting with exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, then adding nutritious table foods and continuing breastfeeding for at least the first year. Help mothers get a decent start in the hospital so breastfeeding isn’t wrecked before it has hardly started. Help make it easier for working mothers to achieve these goals.

    • Jill Castle

      I agree Pat…so much of this is set in motion the first year–even before that…

  • Kelsie Gray

    Today, I went to the Dread Walmarts for some necessities and walked by the in-store McDonald’s. I saw a whole row of tables filled with children, all chowing down, but the saddest thing by far was the six or seven month old baby CRAWLING ACROSS THE TABLE towards a giant cup of soda his father was holding. The child stopped and reached out his hands. The father obliged. The baby started drinking soda through a straw. It made me sick. :( And someday, it will make the baby sick, too.

  • Marsha Hudnall

    I so look forward to your series, Jill. I hope it is read far and wide.

    • Jill Castle

      Thanks Marsha–me too.

  • malachite2

    Interesting that Ms. Castle doesn’t mention the role of toxins in obesity, although there’s at least one study indicating that exposure to/ingestion of bisphenol-A is linked to obesity. Just as exposure to Agent Orange is linked to a higher then normal rate of development of diabetes Type II. And it’s not just vets who were exposed to Agent Orange and the contaminant, TCDD, but anyone who worked in the woods in the PNW or lived near private timber lands or national forests during the time Agent Orange was sprayed both aerially (helicopter) and by backpack. Also people who live near pulp & paper mills that use particular chlorine bleaching processes for paper (quite a few people in the southern part of the US).

    Poor eating habits may contribute but it’s more likely than not the ever increasing burden of toxins is too.

  • Mindy Anderson

    No matter how much stress a child is under due to issues such as bullies, family problems, parental absences and school, it does not give a child a good reason to eat their problems away. This all goes back to being a good parent and having your kids look up to you. You want your kids to desire following in your footsteps. If the parent is feeding their child complete garbage and the child acquires a routine for eating unhealthy when they feel bad or upset, it will only lead to more unhealthy eating habits. It should not matter whether a child loses a grandparent or loses a soccer game, there should be no excuse or reason to eat unhealthy. Yes, I do believe kids should have a very limited and controlled amount of junk food but this does not mean we should ever give them an excuse to eat junk. Children do sometimes blame themselves for family problems or other hardships but if they learn to cope with that hardship through food then that is setting up a horrible habit for the rest of their lives. This will most likely lead to resorting to food when the child becomes older as well. What are they are going to do when there are stressful times throughout high school, college and even marriage? This leads to a lifetime of obesity. Teaching a child to control their eating habits when they are young will only help them out in the future. My parents taught me healthy eating habits when I was younger and made sure they limited the amount of junk food. Today, I can say that I have really good eating habits and that if I did ever resort to food when stressed out, I would definitely be obese.

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  • Reagan Huber

    Hello Jill Castle,

    I agree with the points you made about food not being fully to blame for the increase in childhood obesity. I also feel that the family plays a huge role and both the prevention and the treatment of childhood obesity in America. I too believe we can end childhood obesity!!

    Would you mind reading my blog at I would like to have your perspective.

    Reagan Huber

    The Green Room at Iowa State University